Thursday, October 6, 2011

Expect Some Turbulence

Time to buckle up Jets fans, all indications suggest it will be a bumpy ride

Yes, the entire city, and frankly a good chunk of the country, is eagerly anticipating the official return of the Winnipeg Jets to NHL hockey this coming Sunday.

The buzz has been building ever since the Stephen Brunt article hit the web back in May, and has only grown with the release of the new logo and uniform that is being worn in some fashion by approximately 97% of the local population (the faded women's v-neck t-shirt is borderline spectacular).

When you factor in the blitzing media coverage provided by Hockey Night in Canada and TSN (radio and television), the dominating water cooler talk in every business and social setting, and of course the total panic surrounding all those not fortunate enough to have gotten in on season tickets, the love-in for all things Jets has reached its crescendo.

Because the moment the puck leaves the hand of Bobby Hull, or Stephen Harper (or whomever it is that gets the call for the monumental moment) and hits the ice, well, all the anticipation and pure joy for the return of NHL hockey will fade to the background. From that point on it will be about results.

There is no doubt this franchise will have a grace period - five years of confirmed sellouts guarantees that. No one expects this team to win the Stanley Cup this year, or even next. But playoff hockey in the near future is on the minds of many locals, and to reach that goal, players will need to develop and wins will need to be accumulated.

And that is where the conversation gets tough.

In Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian, and Ondrej Pavelec, the Thrashers have provided the Jets with a solid group of young players to build around, and it looks like Zinger and Chevy drafted another piece to include in Mark Scheifele. Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien and particularly Tobias Enstrom form a nucleus of better than average veterans to lead the way.

That group absolutely represents promise, and has upside to believe in. The problem is that outside of Enstrom, none of those players represent bonafide first line NHLers. Not today anyways. The young guys all have the potential to get there, but potential can't be expected to immediately translate into wins.

The problem begins with the rest of the roster, which is filled mostly with 3rd and 4th liners, who other than the soulless Nick Antropov and the disinterested Kyle Wellwood, should play passionately in front of what promises to be an all-out crazy home barn. But passion and grit can only get you so far (like about 10th place in the East).

The Jets first line of Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler is actually a decent second line or a great third line on a championship caliber team. Kane, Burmistrov and Antropov are again, a decent third line. Scheifele and Eric Fehr (when he returns) represent 2/3's of another decent third line. The Tanner Glass's, Ben Maxwell's, Tim Stapleton's, Chris Thorburn's, Patrice Cormier's and Jim Slater's of the world are great to have when they combine to fight for the 12th and 13th forward spots. But when you need to dress three or four or even five of them a night, well, that's not a good sign.

I expect this team to feed off the home crowd and play winning hockey in front of the MTS Centre faithful, but struggle mightily on the road. On that note, the early schedule could be cruel, with Winnipeg playing only 4 of their first 15 games at home, including a 7-game road-trip through the Eastern conference from Oct.27 to Nov.8.

Head coach Claude Noel along with the management duo of Zinger and Chevy have done a great job establishing a culture and identifying their model for success.

Hopefully Jets fans have the patience to allow them to stick to it.