Take A Look Now, Hockey World

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“How nice is it to go into the season with all 23 men healthy?” a reporter had asked head coach Paul Maurice prior to the Jets first game of the season.

“Why would you do that to me, do you hate me?” Maurice replied, with a hint of sarcasm. “..It’s a long season, we’re healthy today. If there were any wood around here I’d be hitting you over the head with it.”

Well, after 4 shifts and 2:48 of ice time, Bryan Little picked up an injury that has figured to keep him out for at least 6 weeks, and possibly as much as 8. On the bright side, he did have an assist in his 2:48 of ice time, which means he’s currently averaging 21.4 points per 60 minutes, no doubt tops in the league.

The dominoes continued to fall and soon after it was Drew Stafford, then Tyler Myers, Mathieu Perreault, Mark Stuart, Joel Armia, and Shawn Matthias. It’s a pretty big list, and oddly enough the injuries have only happened to veterans on the team – save for 23 year old Joel Armia.

And this is why it is exactly the right time to take notice of what is happening in Winnipeg.

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Heading into the Jets’ matchup vs. Colorado, the lines looked something like this:

Ehlers – Scheifele – Laine

Connor – Petan – Wheeler

Copp – Lowry – Tanev

Dano – Burmistrov – Thorburn

Other than Thorburn and Wheeler, every player there is 25 or under. Which means the Jets should be able to control and maintain most of them for another 3-6 years depending on where they are in their quest for unrestricted free agency. This also means that the Jets are going to have a highly skilled team that is completely underpaid for the next few seasons as players play out their entry level deals.

Before I tell you why the hockey world should be looking out, allow me to offer my own assessments on four players in particular that the average hockey fan (or even Jets fan) may not know much about.

Nic Petan is already a top 9 forward in my eyes. He’s started in the AHL because of the depth we have and because it’s better for him to continue to learn how to be relied on offensively and how to translate his otherworldly junior skill set to the professional ranks. He has incredible vision and a unique skating stride as he circles the offensive zone – pointing his toes in opposite directions to keep his chest facing the goal mouth. His vision and the way he processes the game is incredible (2 assists in the last two games), and he’s going to be a quality NHL’er for a long time. It doesn’t matter how tall or small he is.

Joel Armia has completely evolved since the end of last season. He protects the puck, his hands look incredibly soft, and he has a confidence in him that’s really coming to the forefront. I see him as more than just a third line winger, although with Wheeler, Laine, Ehlers, and Connor on the team it will be challenging for him to get top 6 ice time. Regardless, he’s an underrated asset in that he can play the defensive side of the game, but still keep up offensively. He’s looked great alongside Adam Lowry and would also fit well with Bryan Little.

Andrew Copp projects a third line center at the NHL, but is also capable of a little bit more than being just a checker. I love what the Jets have done with Copp. After a full season in the big leagues last year, he started this season in the minors not because he’s gotten worse, but because he can still get better. He was an all situation player when he played with Michigan, and starting in the minors gave him the opportunity to be the go-to guy, to be relied on defensively and offensively, and to relive that beautiful feeling every athlete loves of being depended on. Since he’s been back with the Jets, he looks a better hockey player by a long shot. He’s carrying the puck a little bit more, trying to find a pass instead of a dump in, shooting with more frequency, I love it. I hope he goes back to the minors at some point this year to continue to hone that offensive game of his because there is definitely something there.

Adam Lowry has a similar projection to Copp, but also has a hidden offensive game evidenced by the 45 goals he scored during his final year of junior. Copp and Lowry are different – Copp has a bit more playmaking in him – but Lowry has an ability to score, and given the fact he’s 6’5″ and Scheifele, Wheeler, Laine, and Armia are all 6’3″ or taller, well, we can put some pretty nasty lines together. Maurice has mentioned before that Lowry is “training for that shutdown role” which allows the Jets so much flexibility in how they arrange their lines and matchups. I doubt Lowry ever scores more than 20 or 25 goals in the NHL, and probably will hover around 15 when he’s at his best, but he doesn’t just project a third line center, he projects a damn good third line center. He’s a big piece to the puzzle.

Those four players are excellent pieces around a core of Scheifele, Laine, Wheeler, Ehlers, Little, and Connor.

From what I’ve seen (and I won’t go into the details here), Scheif, Laine, Ehlers, and Connor all project to be at least first line forwards, and Scheif and Laine have already proven that they’re franchise forwards. Ehlers and Connor hold that same possibility. Wheeler is the Captain – no explanation required – and Little has been underrated for years in his ability to play against the opposition’s best players and to contribute offensively.

Those 6 plus the other 4 I mentioned earlier? That’s a pretty stellar top 10 group of forwards. Brandon Tanev and Marko Dano figure to round out the last 2 spots and while Tanev is a lock to be a bottom six winger his whole career, Dano too has some offensive skills if put with the right people – but the jury is still out.

So why is this all so dangerous? Well, last year I deciphered through Paul Maurice’s interviews on just the type of opportunity Scheifele was going to get. I gave a range of points that he’d score at home, and a range in away games, and, well, they were both right.

That link explains it in a bit more detail, but basically the Jets have the luxury of being able to throw out 3 lines that have a distinct identity.

These identities are:

  1. A line (and more importantly a center) that can play against the opposition’s best, and still produce offense.
  2. A line that has the sole task of shutting down the opposition’s best, where offense is considered a bonus.
  3. A line of pure offense that particularly while at home, feasts on the opposition’s 3rd pairing and 3rd/4th lines.

Well, Scheifele can do role number 1. Little used to do number 1, but with Scheif’s emergence, will now do number 2, and be a very good number 2. Nic Petan (or Mathieu Perreault) can do number 3.

Back to Petan.

He probably should not be a center at the NHL level. Not because of his skill set, but because he’s 5’9″. I’m sure you can imagine him battling Anze Kopitar or trying to contain Jamie Benn down low. It wouldn’t be pretty.

Yet, because of this beautiful thing the Jets have called depth, Nic Petan can play center. He will never have to learn to be an astute defensive center.

Let’s take a look at some scenarios:

Laine – Scheifele – Wheeler

Perreault – Little – Armia

Connor – Petan – Ehlers

Copp – Lowry – Tanev

That “third” line is purely offensive flair and playmaking creativity. Three players who’s job is to go out and score one goal against the opposition’s worst players.

Or:

Ehlers – Scheifele – Laine

Copp – Little – Armia

Connor – Perreault – Wheeler

Petan – Lowry – Tanev

Imagine a game where Blake Wheeler, the team’s Captain, gets to go run over the opponent’s worst players while he scores goals?

Being able to ice a purely offensive line in my opinion is where the NHL is headed. A lot of us grew up with a traditional paradigm of two scoring lines and two checking lines, but with the influx of young skill the league is seeing, that trend is changing, and it’s changing quickly. I can’t honestly say I keep terribly close tabs on teams other than the Jets, but the Jets may be leading the charge on that front just based on the personnel they have available. All-purpose line, checking, pure offense, leftovers. Those are the 4 roles I see the NHL moving toward, and with the Jets’ burgeoning pipeline of prospects, that “leftovers” line could end up being another scoring line. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Drew Stafford, Shawn Matthias, Alex Burmistrov, and Chris Thorburn all have contracts that expire after this season or next. I don’t see a reason to re-sign any of them, and once they’ve departed, the Jets draft and develop model will officially be in full flight, icing a roster (other than Wheeler and Little) completely comprised of Kevin Chevyldayoff additions.

Of course, there is much more than just the 12 forwards you use, but provided we can keep them all, that looks like a group capable of competing for the Stanley Cup to me.

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If you’re on your coffee break (or are bored in general) and are looking to consume more hockey, I wrote a thank you letter to True North Sports Entertainment earlier this season that I think is worth checking out (7 minute read). It highlights further the beautiful thing happening in Winnipeg.

 

Written by hockeythoughts.ca