Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Debriefing

Now that we are well into summer, the LA Kings are reigning as champions, the draft is done and the free agent frenzy is all but over, let's look back and look ahead at where the Jets were, and where they will be going.

The season finished with the Jets a disappointing, but not terribly surprising 11th in the East. The team looked not so much lost as stunned, by the reaction they were getting throughout the year. They’d gone from sparse crowds and relative anonymity in Atlanta to a fish bowl where even the fourth liners were recognized on the street. They played to a full (and boisterous) crowd every home game. This kind of culture shock may have had a lot to do with their inconsistent performance over the course of the year.

That was then, though, and this is now. The off-season has seen some roster tinkering, so let’s look at the line up and see how the Jets are looking for next year:

Line 1: Ladd-Little-Wheeler - This line remains unchanged going into the 2012-13 season. Only Ladd had the kind of year that was expected, putting up 28 goals - second on the team - over the full 82 games. Blake Wheeler will probably not go the first 17 games without a goal next year, so he should see a rise in his production. Seventeen goals was less than the team needed from him. Brian Little put up 24-22-46, which, while respectable, was also less than the team needed from their number one center. This line will need to step up right out of the gate and prove they are, in fact, the number one line.

Line 2: Kane-Antropov-Burmistrov: While Antropov finished the year on the fourth line, he did spend the bulk of his time centering the second line. Much like the first line, it was only the left winger - Evander Kane - who had the year he should have had (30-27-57). Antropov (15-20-35) and Burmistrov (13-15-28) didn’t produce like the team needed. Period. Adding to the problem was that Kane showed a distinct lack of maturity on the ice. All it seemed to take was one good hit from the opposition to set him off and he would chase that player down to exact revenge. While the idea is right - take a number, settle it up - the timing was all wrong; that is, the moment he got back up he was looking to even the score. This inevitably led to a trip to the penalty box which is not where you want your teams leading scorer to be. Ever. Hopefully, he settles down this coming year. He’s not even 21 yet and still has some maturing to do, so there should be improvement in this area. Scoring 30 goals gets you a bit longer leash than other players may have gotten.

Burmistrov? Well, he tried. He really did. He showed a real gift with the puck, and could play keep-away really effectively. Defensively, his game was coming along. It just didn’t translate to numbers. In an ideal world, he will improve on his game and become the offensive threat people are expecting, while still building on his defensive game.

As for Antropov, it’s hoped that the addition of Alexei Ponikarovsky will help him recapture some of his offensive punch - the two played together in Toronto. I’m putting a big question mark next to that, as Antropov had 56 points the last time they were together, Ponikarovsky had 36. These are not numbers that will strike fear into opponents.

Instead, what you will probably see in 2013 is Kane-Jokinen-Burmistrov. I think the Jets coaching staff still sees some hope for Burmistrov, and his puck control will be an asset when paired with the finishing ability of Kane. Jokinen adds some size (that will be used - Antropov, even at 6’6”, plays a distinctly non-physical game) which will, ideally, open up some room for both Burmistrov and Kane. It might also let someone else lay out a hit in Kane’s name. The biggest question will be which Olli Jokinen will show up on any given night. Some days, he’s on fire, while on other nights, it seems like he is just putting in time. A harsh knock on a player, sure, but also sadly accurate. On the plus side, he had a banner year last season, putting up 23-38-61 in the full 82 games. That would have had him fourth in goals, third in assists, second in points on the Jets. If he can put up those kind of numbers this year, he’ll be well worth the $4.5M salary. Moreso if he can lay out some big hits along the way. An additional benefit - he scores more points on the road than at home. The Jets road record was a big reason they missed the post-season. More road scoring could translate into more road wins.

Line 3: GST! Do I need to say more? Actually, I do. This line quickly became the heart and soul of the club. They came to play, lunchpails in hand, every night. They got pressure when the other lines couldn’t. They even scored now and then.

Tanner Glass jumped over to Pittsburgh in the offseason.  It's likely that line will move into the fourth position, using either Patrice Cormier or Spencer Machacek to replace Glass. Either way, the GST name is gone - unless anyone knows a grinder with a last name that starts with ‘G’ that is available. If so, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff would like to speak to you.

Line 4: What seemed like a cast of thousands.

The fourth line was a dumping ground. In coach Claude Noel’s doghouse? Fourth line. Don’t fit anywhere else? Fourth line. Up from the farm? Fourth line. The list of players that appeared here is long: Eric Fehr, Kyle Wellwood, Antti Miettinen, Tim Stapleton, Spencer Machacek, Patrice Cormier, Ben Maxwell, Brett Maclean and more. In some cases, it was a case of a spare part - the other 3 lines were set, so the team needed to fill out the roster. In others - looking at you, Eric Fehr - expectations weren’t being met.  The fourth line usually only saw 3-4 minutes of ice time a game, so it wasn’t a big factor, but that sort of consistent change also means that a line can’t build chemistry.
As mentioned, XST will likely be in the fourth line slot in 2013, which means a new third line will need to be built with the “spare parts." What I foresee is Ponikarovsky-Antropov-Wellwood. Antropov gets the demotion based on a sub-par 2012 year, and it allows him to pair up with two guys he has played with (and played relatively well with). Wellwood is here because quite frankly, he is Wellwood. He’s a versatile player who played on just every line last year, saw both significant PP and PK time and ended up fifth in team scoring (18-29-47). It could be argued he was the best value in the league at $700,000. If Burmistrov falters, expect Wellwood to swap places and appear on the second line. Ponikarovsky will, ideally, add some grit and, like the rest of the line, some tertiary scoring. The XST line will still be the ‘checking line’, and this new third line adds some depth to the Jets offense.

Overall, the additions of Jokinen and Ponikarovsky adds some size and scoring depth to the team. Whether the teams gels and manages to meet those expectations is another question. On paper, though, this could translate into a few more wins for the team, which in turn might lead to the nine points the team needed to make the playoffs.

Defense: The defense will look almost identical come September. Randy Jones and Mark Flood will not be back, but they were 6-7 guys and the Jets are exceptionally deep on defense. As in 2012, these are likely pairings:

Byfuglien - Enstrom: Buff has size and offensive talent, yet lacks some defensive capability. Enstrom lacks size, but has a very well-rounded game otherwise. Peanut butter, meet chocolate. They compliment each others style, and bring an element the other is missing.

Hainsey - Bogosian: Hainsey is steady defensively and was second on the team in +/- in 2012 (+9, Kane was +11). Not exactly an offensive threat, but that isn’t why he is there. He is a pure defenseman. Zach Bogosian is a more offensive d-man, but has a pretty solid game in his own end, too. He’s also young, and his game is getting better. Like Kane, he should improve with age.

Stuart - Clitsome / Postma: Mark Stuart and Grant Clitsome formed a really hard-nosed pair when Clitsome arrived late in the year. Paul Postma may bump Clitsome to the pressbox if he shows he can handle the move up from the AHL, though.

Goaltending: Pavelec - Mason (now Montoya). Ondrej Pavelec carried the team last year. Period. A lot of the saves he made bailed the team out, and wee saves he just had no business making. He’s a number one goalie, but I don’t think he’ll be used quite as much this year.

Oddly, backup Chris Mason left for less money and a shorter contract in Nashville early in July. The pundits said it was for a better chance to win, which for a 36 year old, is understandable. One has to wonder if he isn’t rethinking his decision now with the departure of Ryan Suter. Regardless, the Jets picked up Al Montoya to fill the sport. Montoya isn’t the second coming of Ken Dryden, but he should be serviceable. He went 9-11-5 with the Islanders last year, post in a 3.10 GAA and .893 SV%. I will be surprised if he appears in more than 15 games.

As summer rolls on, I don’t see many more moves that will be made. Kane should re-sign to a very generous contract (5 years / $29M is the current rumor), but beyond that, the roster seems set. The team added some size (which was lacking last year), some more scoring (also lacking) and on paper are an improved team. A playoff team? Maybe. If they are, it will be as a lower seed (higher than 7 would be amazing), and more than one round would be a gift from above. The team doesn’t have the depth that the LA Kings did, that much is certain. The Jets are deeper, though, make no mistake. They should be able to present a consistent four lines over the season (injuries notwithstanding) and that alone should help, as will a true third line that should be able to notch a few goals(the entire GST line had 48 points last year - one more than Kyle Wellwood).

Hope you’re enjoying your summer as much as Ryan Suter and Zach Parise are enjoying theirs.

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