Plain and simple, no matter which way you split it, the Winnipeg Jets need to make the playoffs this season. Luckily for fans and fantasy owners alike, the young talent in Winnipeg has now matured and expectations will be higher than they have been since the team has moved from Atlanta.
Of course the Jets will no longer be able to depend on a weak Southeast division with the NHL's realignment for the 2013-14 season, moving them to the Western Conference in the newly formed Central Division, which features the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks, the Blues and the Wild just to name a few.
Though the team added winger Devin Setoguchi in a trade with the aforementioned Wild this summer to provide some extra depth to their second line scoring, the offseason was mostly filled with the re-signing of core players, including Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little and Zach Bogosian.
While the signings are a key development on a team that needs to start cashing in on potential now, Little and Bogosian are still secondary in importance to guys like Wheeler Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom, Evander Kane and Ondrej Pavelec. At the end of the day, all of these guys will need to collectively demonstrate a proven ability to close out tight games and possess a killer instinct, something the team lacked in the final four games of the season last year, when they lost to the Islanders, Canadiens and Capitals, effectively ending their season after maintaining a division lead for much of the campaign.
As much as the team is expected to mature now, there will also be a number of young players that will help determine the fate of the team this coming year, particularly since players such as Alex Burmistrov and Nik Antropov have decided to leave the NHL and continue their respective careers overseas. Though neither move was necessarily expected, they could prove to be a welcomed surprise as both Burmistrov and Antropov largely underachieved during their tenure in Winnipeg. Their departure makes it more likely that a player like Mark Scheifele, who notched 79 points in just 45 games in the Ontario Hockey League last season, will get a real shot to prove themselves now.
The Big Guns
Andrew Ladd (LW): Ladd managed an outstanding 18 goals, 28 assists and 46 points in the shortened 48-game 2012-13 season last year. Considering his career-high of 59 points took Ladd 82 games back in the 2010-11 season, there's no doubt fantasy owners were more than happy with the production they got from the Jets' captain last year. Playing on a line with Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little proved to help all three to the point where Ladd may very well flirt with 70 points and his first 30-goal season in 2013-14.
Blake Wheeler (RW): Having played to his full potential in a shortened season, Wheeler managed an impressive 19 goals in just 48 games last year, two more than he managed in 80 games in the 2011-12 season. He's really come into his own as a leader and found some real chemistry with Andrew Ladd and Bryan Little on the team's top line, notching points in eight of the Jets' last nine games to finish the season, proving he could be counted on for a push to the playoffs. Though the team came up short of winning the Southeast Division, Wheeler should top 60+ points and set a new career-high in goals going into the 2013-14 season.
Dustin Byfuglien (D): Eight goals and 20 assists in 43 games last year with a minus-1 rating were par for the course for Byfuglien. That's especially encouraging considering Tobias Enstrom (back) only appeared in 22 games last season. The two should pick up where they left off on the power play, making Dusty a top pick on the blue line once again, especially if he's eligible at multiple positions in your fantasy league. 15 goals and 50+ points should offset a sometimes shaky plus/minus, especially if he plays more than 70 games.
On The Rise
Evander Kane (LW): Although he had surgery on his foot in the offseason, Kane will be good to go for the 2013-14 season and will most likely start the year on the team's second line with Olli Jokinen and the newly-acquired Devin Setoguchi, who came from the Wild via trade. The former fourth overall pick showed once again last year that he has the skill and shooting ability to maintain a 30-goal pace, and given that he's now entering his prime, he should be able to pick his game up a notch, with 30+ goals and 60+ points now becoming more of an expected result rather than a mere hope.
Zach Bogosian (D): Bogosian was signed to a long-term deal this summer, as the Jets inked him to a seven-year, $36 million contract. Just 23, Bogosian's recovery from wrist surgery delayed the start of his lockout-shortened campaign, which was ultimately truncated by a concussion in late April. After potting 19 goals in his first two seasons in the NHL, the offensive output slipped but the quality of play in the defensive zone and the development of the talent around him have made Bogosian's plus/minus much more palatable. As the season progressed, things were just beginning to click for the young blueliner as he finished the abbreviated campaign with seven points over his final four contests. Now healthy, Bogosian should log heavy minutes while making a push to best his previous career high in points (30) and contributing a hefty supply of hits and blocked shots as well.
Two To Watch
Tobais Enstrom (D): Enstrom only managed to play 22 games last year due to injury (back), but did manage four goals and 15 points in that short amount of time. When healthy, Enstrom is a premier quarterback on the blue line, racking up 48 points in 84 games over the last two seasons combined. With his passing ability and Dustin Byfuglien's shooting strength at the point, there's no reason Enstrom can't challenge the 60-point plateau in 2013-14. However, Enstrom's health may hamper his ability to reach that potential, as back injuries can sometimes linger.
Bryan Little (C): Although he managed just seven goals in a shortened 48-game season last year, Little did finish with an encouraging plus-8 rating and 32 points. His production last year was especially encouraging towards the end of the season as he managed two goals and nine assists over the team's final 12 games, centering Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler on the team's top line. It would be a big surprise if the trio weren't together to start the 2013-14 season and, given that they likely will be, Little could see a big bump in points and end up with more than 60 this year.
Devin Setoguchi (RW): Setoguchi could very well start his first season with the Jets on a line with Evander Kane and Olli Jokinen, which would give the Jets a second line with a good mix of speed, skill and grit. He's settled in as the type of player that will get you about 20 goals and 40 points. He managed to post a plus rating for the first time in three years which makes him a decent depth play as a right winger in fantasy leagues. At the same time though, he's reached his plateau as a player, so any hope of him returning to the 30-goal form he exhibited as a sophomore in San Jose should be laid to rest.
Olli Jokinen (C): Now an aging veteran, Jokinen managed seven goals, seven assists and a minus-19 rating in 45 games last season. Such production doesn't justify a $4.5 million contract, and certainly does not justify drafting the veteran as a secondary scoring option on your roster. He's only had one 20-goal season in the last four years and was on pace for less than 15 last year. Given he doesn't collect penalty minutes the way he did early in his career and he can single-handedly lose you the plus/minus category in head-to-head leagues, it's tough to consider Jokinen a viable option at center, other than using him on a rare occasion in very deep leagues.
Jacob Trouba (D): The Jets' 9th overall pick in the 2012 entry draft, Trouba has lots of experience playing within the U.S. national development program and is described as a blueliner who plays big and thrives when establishing himself physically. He's a good skater with agility and speed, but the one knock against him is his ability to make decisions effectively while the play develops in front of him. Although he is very talented and has star potential, the Jets have made it clear that they would like to maintain his entry-level contract status, meaning there's a good chance he'll be restricted to no more than five games at the NHL level this year. That said, the Jets' top three defensemen (Bogosian, Enstrom and Byfuglien) have all had problems with injuries in the past, which could open the door for the youngster. All in all, Trouba would still be an excellent addition to a roster in dynasty formats regardless of how he does this season.
Mark Scheifele (C): With Alexander Burmistrov leaving the Jets to continue his career in Russia, Scheifele is likely to play his first full NHL season this year. Although he failed to record a point in four games with the team last year, the Jets' 2011 first round pick did manage an outstanding 30 goals and 49 assists in just 45 games with the OHL's Barrie Colts last season. If you like to gamble on a young up-and-coming star late in your fantasy draft, Scheifele should be one of the names you consider. Be warned, however, that he's not necessarily going to provide star-level numbers right out of the gate, as he'll be given a chance to develop. He also is by no means a shoo-in to be on the team's top two offensive lines to start his big league career.