WINNIPEG - It’s a clean sheet in front of them, but what are the Winnipeg Jets going to do with it?
It’s been nearly five months since the Jets were bounced from the Stanley Cup Playoffs qualifying round in four games by the Calgary Flames.
The stay-in-the-fight mantra Winnipeg adopted during a season filled with adversity was there right until the final buzzer, but the goal well ran relatively dry and it was nearly impossible to overcome the loss of three forwards - Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine and Mason Appleton - to injury in the series opener.
Despite all of the lessons the Jets were able to learn during what was an arduous process, the ability to turn the page on the 2019-20 campaign is accompanied by both optimism and curiosity of what direction the organization is heading in.
With one restricted free agent left to sign, the Jets are already one of 10 teams that are over the $81.5 million salary cap ceiling - though there will be some significant relief coming once veteran centre Bryan Little is placed on LTIR.
Two full seasons removed from a trip to the Western Conference, the Jets have a Vezina-winning goalie, a skilled core of forwards and an unheralded, but capable defence corps that is not subject to the same roster churn it was in September of 2019.
What does that add up to as the Jets move from the meat grinder that is the Central Division to the Group of Seven (North) Division?
Before the Jets begin their chaotic 115-day sprint to the finish line on this 56-game regular season with a home game against the Flames, there are some important questions to chew on as training camp opens on Jan. 3.
Current Cap Space: -$722,885
GM: Kevin Cheveldayoff (10th season)
Head coach: Paul Maurice (7th full season)
Assistants: Jamie Kompon, Charlie Huddy, Dave Lowry, Wade Flaherty (goalie coach), Matt Prefontaine (video coach)
Unsigned players: Jack Roslovic (RFA)
1. Where does Laine slot in?
After an off-season filled with trade rumours and innuendo surrounding an eventual breakup, Laine figures to be in the spotlight when training camp opens.
Since he hasn’t spoken to members of the media since July 31, reporters will be looking for clues from Laine -- whether it’s in his tone, his words or his body language. That first Zoom call could provide a few signs about his mindset.
Laine rarely lacks motivation and as he heads into the final year of the bridge deal he signed in September of 2019, the Finnish sniper fully realizes the best way to enhance his value is to take another step forward.
If he’s in the discussion for the Rocket Richard Trophy and produces at a point-per-game level for the first time in his career -- and is able to carry over the strides he made in his play away from the puck -- he’s going to cash in on his next deal, even if the salary cap remains flat.
In terms of training camp storylines, since there are no exhibition games, all eyes will be on the line combinations Jets head coach Paul Maurice tests out.
No matter who Laine is playing with, he’s going to be given a prominent role in the top-six and he remains a triggerman on a power play that is looking to return to top-5 in the NHL level.
Laine scored just eight of his 28 goals with the man-advantage last season and increasing that number is a priority.
Training camp may also provide a few hints on any wrinkles the Jets might unveil on the power play, but finding a way to capitalize on Laine’s quick release and heavy shot figures to be part of the game plan.
2. Is Scheifele back to full health?
The main man in the middle was limited to only three shifts against the Flames, exiting the series with a suspected high-ankle sprain after an awkward hit from Matthew Tkachuk.
Scheifele has been back on the ice for several months, so there isn’t really a concern about whether or not his body has fully recovered.
His ability to produce after generating offence at a point-per-game level for the past four seasons isn’t in question either.
However, Scheifele’s hungry to take his all-around game to the next level and there’s no better way to do that than to go up against the likes of reigning Hart Trophy winner Leon Draisaitl, Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews and John Tavares for nine times a season to get a gauge on how you stack up.
Plus, Scheifele wants to be part of Canada’s entry at the 2022 Olympics and that evaluation process is going to begin immediately.
The Jets need Scheifele to be their most impactful skater and you can bet he’s going to spend this season trying to make up for lost time.
3. Which rookie will have the biggest impact?
Last season, 2015 second-rounder Jansen Harkins vaulted from fringe status to full-time NHLer, appearing in 27 games during the regular season and three more in the playoffs (where he notched an impressive goal).
Harkins is destined to be on the roster, but is still working to carve out a bigger role for himself.
The bigger opportunities to contribute are located on the blue line, where 2019 first-rounder Ville Heinola and 2017 second-rounder Dylan Samberg will be looking to break in.
Heinola appeared in seven games with the Jets last season and while his offensive game was evident from the outset, he needed to mature physically and continue to work on his defensive play.
Heinola, a slick puck mover with impressive instincts, is suiting up in his third World Junior Hockey Championship and figures to be feeling confident coming into his second NHL training camp.
Samberg completed his junior season at the University of Minnesota-Duluth in March and is set to make his pro debut.
He’s a big, mobile stay-at-home defenceman that can play with an edge. His physical maturity should allow him to compete for an NHL job immediately, though getting some seasoning in the minors is a distinct possibility.
If they can’t crack the top-six out of camp, it’s important for the development of Heinola and Samberg to be seeing game action, likely in the American Hockey League.
Cole Perfetti, who was chosen 10th overall in the 2020 NHL Draft, is the top forward prospect, though he’s going to face some stiff competition to earn a spot on the opening-day roster.
Perfetti, who is suiting up for Team Canada at the world junior in Edmonton, is also a candidate to spend some time on the taxi squad - especially since the Ontario Hockey League has delayed the start of the season indefinitely.
The sleeper candidate in the forward category is left-winger Kristian Vesalainen, the Jets first round pick in 2017, while David Gustafsson will be in the mix for the fourth-line centre job with veteran Nate Thompson.