Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Crystal Ball: Part 2

Ok sports fans, enough with the think pieces and navel gazing, it’s time to get back to hockey. The home opener at the MTS Centre is less than 40 days away and it’s time to go out on a limb and make some predictions for the season ahead. Being a blogger is the best of all possible worlds because if my predictions are right I can get on a soap box and brag all day long about how awesome I am, and if I’m wrong, I can shrug my shoulders and say, hey I’m just a blogger (Ask Eklund , he’s actually made a career out of it).  The hotly debated question on everyone’s mind, including my own is; Will the new Winnipeg Jets make the play offs?

It seems as though this question ranks right up there with “what’s the meaning of life?” on the difficulty scale.  Not a lot of people are willing to take a position and when they do it’s with qualifiers, like “they will make the playoffs but.....” or “they’ll be in the hunt, but...” So now it’s time for me to put up or shut up.

Will the Jets make the playoffs? Answer: YES!

Now the hard part, why?

Most people on the other side of this question point to the competition as reasons why the Jets won’t make it. “Who will they catch?” is the often used logic. Ask yourself this though, how much have any of the other teams in front of the Jets improved in the off season? Now look at what the Jets have done.

I know there have been no blockbuster deals that would fill the obvious holes up front, but the Jets have quietly, almost under the radar been filling the plumber positions with good quality depth guys. Now I know what you’re thinking, so what, we’re not going to win the cup with plumbers and fourth line wingers. And on that I would agree, but here’s the thing, how many guys on this team are set to have break out years? What has to happen for these guys to have their break out year? They need support.  They need the grinders, and plumbers to give them the space to make the plays and explode offensively. So while other teams are hoping their young stars will step up, the Jets are putting the pieces in place to make sure it happens.

In my humble opinion what you are going to see next year is one of the toughest, and youngest defensive corps in the league punishing teams, while one of the most previously underrated and again young offenses, kicks it up into a different gear.

Kane, Burmistrov, Little, and Fehr will all see their point totals increase significantly next season. Kane I suspect will begin his ascent into the ranks of elite NHL forwards as well.  Also look for one of the off-season signings to be a diamond in the rough. Remember Zinger has a great eye for talent and a lot of these guys are hungry to make the most of their opportunity with Winnipeg. I think a guy like Tanner Glass could easily find a new level of play in Winnipeg, along with others.

The defence is definitely not the same question mark as the guys up front. Byfuglien heads a strong package that is a good mix of experience and youth. This is the year Bagosian has to impress or his stock will drop significantly. If the rumours are to be believed he knows it and is holding out for a generous contract. His agent is doing the smart thing and hedging his bets against what could be a disaster for Bagosian if he doesn’t have a good year. This is not a good sign for the Jets, although the defence has enough depth in Oduya,  Enstrom and others to compensate.

Now let’s look at teams in the east. Canucks fan in part one of this series basically said the team to catch would probably be Montreal, and only if Price has an off year. Really? Admittedly I’m not an expert on the eastern teams but in my opinion the habs got lucky last year and hot at the right time. Frankly I see them as the low hanging fruit that should be very catchable. I also see the Rangers on a downward slide, even with the addition of Richards. Look for Tampa, Boston, and Philly to dominate again this year. I do however have question marks about Pittsburgh and Washington. Obviously on paper these two teams are stacked but I found the problems Washington had last year to be ominous and problems with Sid will hound the Penguins this year. I also believe that Buffalo will improve after opening the vault in the off season. So I’m going to say the Jets will ride their young forwards and capable D to an eighth place finish in the east this year.

The other thing that no one mentions is the X-factor. Winnipeg will be the epicentre of the hockey world next year. Already there are reports of spontaneous GO-JETS-GO chants at many events throughout Manitoba. Every day Jets players are tweeting and talking to the media about how excited they are to play in front of the Winnipeg faithful and in my mind it seems to go beyond the usual sports cliché pandering. I think there’s a palpable sense amongst the players of being a part of something special and of course the fans will make their voices heard. How will it translate to on ice performance? I’m not sure, but if I had to guess I think you will see most players over achieve at least in the first year.

One thing I can predict with much certainty is we’ll be entertained.  Seeing the NHL clubs roll through Winnipeg again will be a magical experience and a winning season would be the icing on the cake. There is a small part of me that dares to dream bigger though. A surprising dark horse run through the playoffs, or maybe, just maybe a guy named Ladd with his name on the cup one more time. 

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