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2011-12 season preview: Winnipeg Jets

2010-11 record (as the Atlanta Thrashers): 34-36-12, 80 points; 4th in Southeast, 12th in East

Playoffs: Did not qualify

To some, it might be appropriate to throw out last season. The Atlanta Thrashers are now the Winnipeg Jets, transforming a team in a non-traditional (but huge) market into a second opportunity for a small but rapid Canadian market to support an NHL team. Kevin Cheveldayoff is the new general manager, Claude Noel will be the new coach and the jerseys and arena will be totally different.

That being said, the roster remains largely the same. They’ll just be playing with a bigger home-ice advantage and the higher level of scrutiny (honeymoon stage or not) that comes with it.

Offense

Normally it’s reasonable to keep defensemen out of this category, but when has Dustin Byfuglien been normal? The hybrid blueliner can play a wing or defensive position, but the general idea is the same: he should bull his way around the ice and unleash his terrifying slap shot without hesitation. Byfuglien earned an All-Star appearance with a blazing first half before falling apart in the second half. He may be a defenseman (or the Jets might decide to move him back to forward), but there’s no denying that he’s the catalyst of this team’s attack.

The rest of the forwards are rounded out by some players with size (Eric Fehr, Nik Antropov), guys who’ve had one strong season but need to prove they can do it again (Bryan Little, Andrew Ladd) and promising youngsters with unclear potential (Evander Kane, Alex Burmistrov). It might be hard to deny 2011 first-round pick Mark Scheifele a spot in the lower end of the lineup, if the team decides that he’s better off in that role at the NHL level (instead of getting higher profile reps at a lower level).

On paper, the Jets’ attack isn’t too frightening, but a lot of wild cards are at play.

Defense

For all the blustery praise about Byfuglien, he wasn’t quite the same when his talented scoring partner Tobias Enstrom got banged up. The small Swede put together two consecutive 50-plus point seasons that largely went under the radar because of the Thrashers’ woes. He should get some well-deserved attention if he puts together another strong campaign, even if he might get lost in Buffy’s shadow.

Zach Bogosian has been a disappointment so far – he’s seemingly an unshaped form of clay but has all the tools you’d hope for in a future star defenseman. It’s the intangibles such as hockey IQ that keep holding him back, but perhaps a change of scenery might help him reach his first-round potential.

Ron Hainsey is a three-time 30-plus point defenseman, but his scoring numbers keep tumbling. That’s not a huge problem with the offensive gems this team could sport from the blue line, as long as he uses his size to continue to improve in his own end.

Overall, defense is a strength for Winnipeg – at least from the perspective of scoring points. The Jets’ weakness though is keeping the puck out of their own net.

Goalies

Both Ondrej Pavelec and Chris Mason are in contract years, so each guy has a lot on the line. Pavelec hopes to show that his flashes of potential can turn into seasons full of sustained success while Mason needs to prove that he deserves to continue working at the NHL level.

Pavelec was outstanding at times last season, although consistency might be the key (that or not getting too frustrated with a defense that might hang him out to dry more often than other goalies). Mason produced some solid work in St. Louis and Nashville, so the Jets have reason to believe that he’ll bounce back from a rough season in which he sported an ugly .892 save percentage.

Coaching

Sure, he coached the Columbus Blue Jackets on an interim basis in 2009-10, but in the grand scheme of things, this is Claude Noel’s first real chance at a coaching job. Craig Ramsay did a nice job of getting the most out of an unusual roster, so Noel has his work cut out for him. Finding the right balance between getting the most out of the team’s greatest strengths (youth and dangerous offensive defensemen) and limiting the drawbacks of their weaknesses (such as the mistakes that come from being so aggressive) remains key. Perhaps his years as Ken Hitchcock’s assistant will influence him in a positive way.

Breakout candidate

Sure, he hasn’t been totally under the radar in his first two seasons – people still revere him for knocking out Matt Cooke – but Kane seems primed for a leap. Maybe it’s because he received Bobby Hull’s blessing to wear number 9 or perhaps it’s just the natural maturation of a power forward, but there are some who believe he could flirt with 30 goals this season.

Best-case scenario

Some might argue that this team should stock up on prospects, but honestly, the people of Winnipeg would go insane over a playoff run in the first year. The best-case scenario would involve the team earning a postseason bid thanks to an All-Star season from Pavelec, dynamic work from Byfuglien and a score-by-committee approach from their offense.

Reality

The Jets feature a strange mixture of players. The ceiling seems fairly modest (sixth seed), but it’s not crazy to at least think about a playoff run of some kind. On the bright side, fans would probably let a rough season slide, so the Jets are in as close to a win-win situation as an NHL team can enjoy.

That being said, winning is always appreciated, too.

Poll: Will Jaromir Jagr lead the Panthers in scoring again?

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 14:  Jaromir Jagr #68 of the Florida Panthers signals a teammate during the third period against the New York Islanders at the Barclays Center on March 14, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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This is part of Florida Panthers day at PHT…

At age 43 Jaromir Jagr was the oldest player in the NHL last season by more than four years.

You would have never known it when watching him play.

He was still a dominant top-line player and on many night was the best player on the team. His 66 points were more than any player in NHL history age 43 or older, and he finished as the team’s leading scorer.

While he has obviously slowed down from where he was during his peak years in the league when he was one of best players ever, he is still playing at a level that almost no other player in NHL history has been able to match at this age. And there doesn’t seem to be any sign of him dramatically slowing down in the near future.

Because of that, the Panthers are bringing him back in 2016-17 for at least one more year.

So with Jagr back in the mix for another year, will he end up leading the Panthers in scoring once again even though he will be 44 years old? Jagr is one of just three players in NHL history that has ever finished as his team’s leading scorer over the age of 40, a list that includes only him, Gordie Howe and Teemu Selanne. He is the only player that has done it over the age of 43 and the only one that has done it for two different teams (New Jesrey in 2013-14 and Florida in 2015-16).

The one player that seems to be a significant challenger is Aleksander Barkov. He finished just seven points behind Jagr in 2015-16 (in 12 fewer games) and spent most of the season playing on a line with Jagr and Jonathan Huberdeau, a trio that was one of the most dominant lines in the league when they were together. But given how Jagr still seems to be in great shape and was still a 60-point player a year ago he is not going to be easy to overtake.

Report: Rangers close to inking Pirri

ANAHEIM, CA - APRIL 01:  Brandon Pirri #11 of the Anaheim Ducks jumps over Ben Hutton #27 of the Vancouver Canucks during the first period at Honda Center on April 1, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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One of the most intriguing UFAs left on the open market has reportedly found a new home.

Brandon Pirri, the 25-year-old forward that’s scored 36 goals over the last two seasons, is set to join the Rangers on a one-year, $1.1 million deal, per Sportnet’s Elliotte Friedman.

Taken 59th overall by Chicago in 2009, Pirri’s always been high on offensive ability and shown a consistent knack for finding the back of the net, even with limited opportunities.

In ’13-14, he scored 13 times despite only appearing in 49 games.

In ’14-15, he scored 22 times despite only appearing in 49 games.

(This is not a typo. For some reason he hit that 49 game mark with regularity.)

Last year, Pirri had 11 goals in 52 contests before the Panthers flipped him to Anaheim. He proceeded to score three goals and five points in nine games as a Duck — missing a good chunk of time with a serious ankle injury — but failed to crack the lineup during an opening-round playoff loss to Nashville.

In New York, Pirri will be part of a remodeled forward group that includes GM Jeff Gorton’s other pickups this summer: Jimmy Vesey, Michael Grabner, Josh Jooris and Nathan Gerbe.

The group also got a new look via trade, as Gorton flipped Derick Brassard to Ottawa for Mika Zibanejad.

Avalanche hire Jared Bednar as new head coach

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All 30 NHL teams now have a head coach for the 2016-17 season.

Just a couple of weeks after Patrick Roy abruptly left the Colorado Avalanche organization, the team announced on Thursday afternoon that Jared Bednar will replace him behind the bench.

“After profiling the type of coach I wanted for our team and going through an interview process with several good candidates, I believe that Jared Bednar is the best person to lead this team behind the bench,” Avalanche General Manager Joe Sakic said in a team statement. “Jared’s track record of success as a head coach in the American Hockey League speaks for itself and he is considered to be one of the top up-and-coming coaches in our business.”

“Even though we had to accelerate the process with training camp approaching, we feel we met some real strong candidates with a lot of potential to become head coaches in the NHL in the near future, continued Sakic. “I would like to thank the general managers who gave us permission to talk to key staff members at such a precarious time.”

This will be Bednar’s first head coaching job in the NHL, but he boasts a pretty impressive resume in the minors that includes a couple of championships at two different levels.

Prior to joining the Avalanche, Bednar coached the Lake Erie Monsters, the AHL affiliate of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and led the team to a Calder Cup championship this past season thanks to a 15-2 run during the playoffs.

He also won the ECHL’s Kelly Cup in 2008-09 when he was behind the bench for the South Carolina Stingrays.

Bednar is taking over an Avalanche team that had regressed in each of the past two seasons under Roy and has some pretty significant holes on its blue line. He is also taking over the team less than a month before training camps are set to begin. That is a pretty tall order for a first-time NHL coach.

On the plus side, he does have a lot of talent to work with. The Avalanche have a strong core of young forwards that includes Nathan MacKinnon, Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog, and potentially Mikko Rantanen, the No. 10 overall pick in 2015 that dominated the AHL in his first pro season. Tyson Barrie is also one of the more underrated defensemen in the league, while he also has a No. 1 goalie in Semyon Varlamov. So the cupboard isn’t entirely bare, and perhaps a fresh approach that plays to the strengths of the core players can get even more out of them.

Under Pressure: Keith Yandle

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 30:  Keith Yandle #93 of the New York Rangers skates against the Washington Capitals in Game One of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 30, 2015 in New York City.  Capitals defeated the Rangers 2-1.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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This is part of Florida Panthers day at PHT…

After a 2015-16 season that saw the Panthers take a huge step in their development and surprisingly win the regular season Atlantic Division crown, they spent the summer loading up their roster in an effort to become a Stanley Cup contender. The centerpiece of that roster movement was the seven-year, $44.45 million contract they gave defenseman Keith Yandle after acquiring his free agent negotiating rights from the New York Rangers.

Yandle can be a bit of a polarizing player because of his style of play.

Statistically, he is one of the most productive defenders in the NHL and is pretty much a lock for at least 45 points every season.

But he also isn’t a player that is viewed as a true shutdown defender, and instead is looked at as one that needs to be in more of a sheltered role to really excel. That can lead to scrutiny and criticism when he isn’t putting points on the board. That always seemed to be the case during his 103 regular season games with the Rangers, a team that never fully seemed to embrace the positives he brings to the ice.

If he is going to face any pressure in Florida it is probably going to be the result of that reputation, as well as the $44 million price tag he carries.

That type of salary brings a lot of high expectations.  It is going to be especially true in Florida because the Panthers lost perhaps their most reliable defenseman over the summer when Brian Campbell left in free agency to return to the Chicago Blackhawks. Campbell played a ton of big minutes and was a rock alongside Aaron Ekblad on the team’s top pairing over the past two seasons. That is a big hole to replace in the lineup, and with Yandle’s salary there is going to be an expectation for him to be one of the top guys on the blue line.

The problem with that is Yandle is the type of player that tends to stand out no matter what he does, and that isn’t always a positive for defensemen.

When he is at his best, he is making an impact with the puck and creating offense. A lot of offense.

But when he makes a mistake, whether it is a turnover or simply getting beat in the defensive zone, as defenders that play his style of hockey do from time to time, it will stand out like a sore thumb. And even though the positive play usually outweigh the mistakes, the mistakes are usually the ones that get most of the attention.

Yandle is a very good player and the Panthers are a better team with him on the roster. He is the type of mobile, puck-moving defensemen that is starting to reshape the way teams think about and build their defense. But as he experienced in New York after the Rangers gave up a huge return to acquire him in a trade from the Arizona Coyotes,  the cost to acquire him might create level of expectation that will be difficult, if not impossible, to reach.