Regular Season Record: 37-35-10
Western Conference Ranking: 11th
Season Series: 3-1 Blackhawks
The Winnipeg Jets entered the 2013-14 season with high hopes, looking to build on two seasons where they finished just outside the post-season. General Manager Kevin Chevaldayoff brought in former 30-goal scorer Devin Setoguchi, acquired Michael Frolik from the Blackhawks at the NHL Draft, and eighth overall pick Jacob Trouba made the team as an eighteen-year old, shoring up a shaky blue-line.
The Jets had a so-so start to the season, but by December, things were starting to look south. Playing in the ultra-competitive Central Division alongside powerhouses like the Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, and Colorado Avalanche, coupled with injuries to Trouba, Evander Kane, and goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, Winnipeg had silently sank to the bottom of the division by the new year.
A five-game losing streak to kick off 2014 ended up costing head coach Claude Noel his job, and Paul Maurice was hired as the teams’ second coach since the move to Winnipeg. Immediately, things started looking up for the club. The Jets won four straight games under Maurice, including handing the Anaheim Ducks their first home loss of the season, after going 18-0 prior to that point. The Jets kept up the sudden improvement, and at one time, were the hottest team in the league, winning 12 of their last 15 games. For Jets fans, the playoffs didn’t seem like such a stretch anymore.
However, the Jets stalled after the Olympic break, losing six straight games, and falling out of contention by mid-March. Chevaldayoff didn’t make any moves at the Trade Deadline, instead opting to sign Mark Stuart to a four-year contract extension.
The Jets played out the rest of their season with Setoguchi sitting regularly in the press box, and supposed team star Evander Kane being a healthy scratch in one of the teams’ final games of the year. Nearly 10 AHL players finished the year for the team, who at that point was missing Mark Scheifele, Al Montoya, and Zach Bogosian to season-ending injuries.
Although the Jets’ season was over by the 11th of April, their farm team, the St. John’s Ice Caps, kept the city of Winnipeg buzzing with an inspiring playoff run. The Ice Caps fell in the Calder Cup Final to the Texas Stars, but many young guns stood out over their post-season run, including goaltender Michael Hutchinson, who earned his first two career NHL wins in the Jets’ final games of the season, after starting the year at the ECHL level.
To talk about the Jets’ season, we interviewed Evan Matthews, staff writer at the Winnipeg Jets blog HockeyAtTheForks.com:
BU: What did you expect from the Jets this year, and if you expected more, how did they disappoint?
HaTF: I definitely expected improvement. I think Chevaldayoff did his part over the off-season, as most free agents wouldn’t like to sign in Winnipeg as they think it’s not a top-notch destination city just yet. No one could have predicted the slide Setoguchi would have, and injuries just seemed to pile up at the wrong times.
BU: Would you say Devin Setoguchi was the Jets’ biggest bust of the season?
HaTF: I would give that title to Ondrej Pavelec. He was simply awful all year, and at times, it seemed that Al Montoya was going to wrestle the starting job away from him. A quick glance at any statistical category shows he is not up to the task that a starting goaltender faces, especially without a top-notch defense.
BU: How impressed were you with Jacob Trouba‘s game this season, in his rookie year?
HaTF: Easily the best story of the year. I think most Jets fans suspected he would make the team, but seeing him put up 25+ minutes a game is something no one saw coming. In hindsight, it now seems obvious that he would climb into a top-two role within the Jets’ defensive personnel, but it was a pleasant surprise, to say the least.
BU: Dustin Byfuglien was ice-cold at the season’s mid-way point, but moving up to forward seemed to make him a little more useful for the team. What do you think the Jets will do with #33 in 2014-15? Is he trade bait?
HaTF: I think he could be on the trade block, but Chevy better be prepared to take what he can get for the big man. Not many teams need a net-front kind of guy anymore; even teams like the Stars and Blue Jackets have shown they can play a skilled game. Teams that are looking for that kind of player can usually fill that void from within. I think as long as he stays in Winnipeg, I’d like to see him as a forward. He doesn’t cost the team goals that way.
BU: Were you shocked when the Jets fired Claude Noel, or was it the right move?
HaTF: Claude Noel was a ‘good guy’, but it was just an unfortunate situation. He just didn’t seem to have the right answers, and the team desperately needed a wake-up call at that point in the season. I never expected Chevy or [Jets executive] Mark Chipman to make a move like that so suddenly, but it turned out pretty well.
BU: When you look back over the last two seasons, there are a lot of new coaches in this league, or old faces with new teams. Would you rank Paul Maurice up there with the best of the new hires? Jets’ fans seemed to love him as soon as he stepped behind the bench.
I love the way Maurice took charge of this team, and continued to do so, no matter where they were in the standings. He ran a bag-skate on the Jets’ final practice day of the season, and some Jets’ fans cried foul. They ended up winning their final two games anyway, and it showed that this guy is ready for the future with this team.
BU: What does Kevin Chevaldayoff have to do to improve this team before training camp? Do you think his job is at risk down the line if the Jets don’t perform?
HaTF: We desperately need some top-six talent. [Winnipeg Free Press] writer Gary Lawless said he’d like to see [Evander] Kane play 40 games with Mark Scheifele, and I think that could be a good combination moving forward. Simply put, we need someone to play alongside Bryan Little. Andrew Ladd needs to return to the third-line role he played so well with the Blackhawks, and if we have that kind of secondary scoring, it could be the difference between 10 or 20 W’s and L’s on the board. We played a lot of tight games [in 2013-14.]
BU: Evander Kane entered the season expected to be the Jets’ offensive leader, and left it sitting in the press box in some of the final games. Is it time for a new direction, or do you think there’s still hope for the former first-rounder?
HaTF: Like Lawless, I’d like to see him alongside Scheifele, I think those two can feed off each other and be really tough to defend. If that doesn’t work, then it’s time to move on for both sides. He’s still a youngster and has years of success ahead of him, and if the team can’t win with him, anything in return will be worth their while.
BU: Blackhawks fans are always pleased to see Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, and now Michael Frolik come back to town, although they’re wearing blue instead of red. How happy are you with the three former ‘Hawks in their new home?
HaTF: Michael Frolik was exceptional this season. I’m sure you guys were sad to see him go, but it shows how deep the Blackhawks really are if that kind of player can immediately make an impact on the top line elsewhere. Ladd is still a key part of the team, and his leadership has to be valued around the room for this team to be successful. Byfuglien certainly struggled at times this year, but not all is lost for the big man. I can see him returning to form in the bottom-six if the Jets can only find some big-time scoring power up front. All in all, these three guys are huge for our team. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe they’re the only three Jets with a [Stanley Cup] Ring.
BU: Paul Maurice signed for four more years at the end of the season. What do you think the Jets can accomplish in that time?
HaTF: A lot. I don’t think it will be a sudden rise to the top like we saw with the Colorado Avalanche this season, but as long as he gets the right players to work with, he can certainly build a winning culture in Winnipeg. It won’t be easy playing in this stacked Central Division, but in four years, the Jets should be established as Stanley Cup Playoff regulars.
BU: What’s your prediction for the 2014-15 Winnipeg Jets’ season? Will 2014 first-round pick Nikolaj Ehlers make the team? Will Winnipeg finally see playoff hockey once again?
From what I’ve seen, I think Ehlers has a great shot at making this team, although the Jets’ patience with Scheifele is starting to pay off as well. Trouba will be considered a top-10 defenseman league-wide. Pavelec won’t last the season. The Jets will finish fifth in the division, after fighting for the last Wild Card spot, but I think the Minnesota Wild will be fourth, and one Pacific Division team is bound to snag up a Wild Card spot this year. Record: 44-27-9.
A special thanks to Evan at Hockey At The Forks for helping us with this week’s Conference Call!
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