For much of the first half of the 2010-11 campaign, the now defunct Atlanta Thrashers looked poised to make a run at a playoff spot. The team’s best stretch of hockey came last winter, when a 10-2 record over 12 contests had the team battling the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning for the top spot in the Southeast Division, on the backs of All-Star defensemen Tobias Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien. Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec recovered from a fainting spell at the beginning of the season and gave his team a chance to win on a nightly basis during that span.
The 2011-12 season has brought change for the former Thrashers, as the franchise is set to begin its inaugural campaign north of the border as the reincarnated Winnipeg Jets. The city of Winnipeg has not seen NHL hockey in over 15 years, and it remains to be seen how the young team responds to extra media scrutiny and even more pressure to win. Between elevated expectations and the fact that the Jets will have to travel more than any other NHL team this year, giving Winnipeg a taste of playoff hockey is going to be a challenge at least in the immediate future.
That said, Jets fans have to be excited about the talent they have inherited. The team avoided arbitration with forward Blake Wheeler by signing him to a two-year deal and also inked captain Andrew Ladd to a long-term contract, ensuring that the Jets will boast a strong set of forwards on the scoring lines for the next few years. In goal, they still have a potential All-Star in Ondrej Pavelec. However, the tender will have to step up his game another notch and show that he can carry his team to the playoffs this year.
Overall, the biggest question mark for the organization is whether defensemen Zach Bogosian will be signed or traded off to another team. His fantasy value has decreased since he came into the league and with two stars – Enstrom and Byfuglien – taking care of the blue line, the Jets may part ways with Bogosian after all.
THE BIG GUNS
Tobias Enstrom (D): With the exception of a nine-game pointless drought to finish of the season, Enstrom did not go more than a five-game stretch without recording a point during the 2010-11 campaign. Paired with fellow All-Star Dustin Byfuglien on the power play, Enstrom had plenty of time and space to quarterback the man advantage while defenses focused on trying to stop Buff’s big blasts from the point. Furthermore, a minus-10 for Enstrom in the plus/minus column was pretty much the status quo for most of the team last year, and his career-high of 51 points in 72 games more than made up for the poor rating. He doesn’t score as many goals as Byfuglien, but Enstrom is more consistent than his counterpart and there are no signs of him slowing down. Should he play a full 82 games this season, 15 goals and 60-plus points are not outside the realm of possibility.
Andrew Ladd (LW): Fresh off career highs in goals (29) and points (59), Ladd earned a brand new long-term contract this past July to go along with the honor of being named team captain. Ladd showed that he wasn’t afraid to play a physical game, and he also proved he could get his name on the scoresheet on a nightly basis. He is the type of player that is counted on in any situation, and his longest stretch without a point last season came at the end of December and lasted just six games. If there was a downside to Ladd’s career year, it’s that his plus/minus rating dropped into negative territory for the first time ever (minus-10). Of course, that is largely because he moved from the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks to a team that missed the playoffs last year. Overall, one can expect Ladd’s draft position to be higher in fantasy leagues this season as he looks to prove that his most recent campaign was not a fluke. He should be able to surpass the 30-goal mark on a Jets team that will challenge for the playoffs, and it’s reasonable to expect that plus/minus rating to go back into the positives as well.
Dustin Byfuglien (D): Byfuglien came off a dreamy playoff run with the Chicago Blackhawks that led to a championship two seasons ago, but many questioned the Thrashers’ coaching staff for moving him from the wing to the blue line in the 2010-11 season (namely Jeremy Roenick). Shortly after, Big Buff went on a tear and proved his doubters wrong by recording 20 goals and 33 assists for 53 points (all career-highs) and carving a spot in the All-Star Game for the first time in his career. This was a truly remarkable accomplishment for Byfuglien, and his fantasy draft position is sure to shoot up to the elite class as a result. However, there is a red flag to be raised with regards to his lack of consistency. From the start of January onward, he only managed 13 of his 53 total points. It might not be a coincidence that Byfuglien signed a lucrative, long-term deal in February and went on a major slump afterwards, but at any rate, he will commonly be drafted as a top defenseman this fall. Still, if you’re in a head-to-head league you might consider drafting his teammate, Tobias Enstrom, on the basis of better consistency.
ON THE RISE
Evander Kane (C): When a player of Kane’s caliber reaches his third year in the big leagues, potential turns into expectations. By that logic you can bet Kane will play a significant role in the success of the Jets this season. He is equipped with size and skill, and maintains good conditioning. Furthermore, when you look at the list of players that Kane could be playing with at any given time -- Bryan Little, Nik Antropov, Blake Wheeler and Andrew Ladd (just to name a few) -- there is no reason he can’t surpass the 20-goal plateau to complement 50-plus points. The sky is the limit with Kane as he’ll get regular time on the power play and is likely to probably surpass Antropov in scoring.
Blake Wheeler (RW): Wheeler split last season between the Thrashers and Bruins and scored 18 goals and 26 assists for 44 points. In his three NHL seasons, Wheeler has missed a grand total of two games. He has offensive talent and is just on the verge of entering his prime production years. He'll play on the Jets' top two lines after scoring 17 points in 23 games with the team last year. All signs point to Wheeler topping his career highs, so he'll make a solid fantasy pick once the top guns in the draft have been selected.
TWO TO AVOID
Chris Mason (G): Mason posted a goals-against average of 3.39 last season, which is the highest of his career since becoming a regular in the NHL. At this point in his career, Mason is a platoon goalie at the best of times, and really, the majority of time between the pipes in Winnipeg will probably go to his teammate Ondrej Pavelec. Mason is only worth drafting as an occasional plug-and-play option where the opponent is favorable.
Zach Bogosian (D): Bogosian had his worst season as a pro in 2010-11 with a career-low 17 points and an utterly disappointing minus-27 rating. That's not the stat line you would expect from a former third overall draft pick, and with All-Star blueliners like Tobias Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien leading the charge, Bogosian's potential for substantial fantasy output is limited to say the least.
Carl Klingberg (LW): Perhaps the most well traveled man in the organization last season, Klingberg split the majority of the year between the Swedish Elite League and the AHL’s Chicago Wolves. He even managed to play in his first career NHL game, which turned out to be the final contest in the history of the Atlanta Thrashers. Klingberg is known for his hard-working attitude and strong skating ability and could potentially be a top six forward in the big leagues someday. He’ll get an invite to training camp in September and could start the season in the NHL should he have a good showing.
Spencer Machacek (RW): The biggest asset Machacek possesses is his size and strength, and he showed that last season when he recorded 53 points in 67 games for the Chicago Wolves of the AHL. He also managed to get 10 NHL games under his belt around the halfway point of last season, but failed to register a single goal or assist. Machacek will be competing with guys like Ben Maxwell heading in to training camp for a spot on the Jets, and if he makes the team it will be based on solid play at both ends of the ice. He has shown he can be a force during playoff runs with the Wolves and has a good chance of becoming an NHL regular someday.