Thoughts from the Jets’ inaugural month
If you’re getting tired of Dustin Byfuglien’s attention to detail – or lack thereof – prepare to be exasperated. Buff has demonstrated his recklessness on several occasions, seldom more obviously than Saturday night in New Jersey, where his neutral-zone carelessness led directly to Adam Henrique’s OT winner. We all know Buff is a high-risk, high-reward player, but with only 2 goals in 15 games this year, many are beginning to wonder if the potential upside (he scored 16 goals in 42 games to begin last season) can offset the obvious drawbacks.
While it’s possible that Buff’s defensive play will improve in time (he’s played just one full season as an NHL defenceman), the long-term solution is probably for the coaching staff to mitigate his weaknesses by pairing him with a very smart, stay-at-home defenceman who reads the play exceptionally well, and also skates well. Tobias Enstrom is easily the Jets’ smartest player, and the best in-house candidate, but he isn’t a shut-down defenceman, and babysitting Byfuglien might take away from his offensive game. Marc Staal is pretty much the ideal candidate, but unfortunately he has a long-term contract with the New York Rangers (although he’s currently out with a concussion). Montreal’s Josh Gorges – a UFA at season’s end – would also be a great fit, but the Habs will probably do everything in their power to hold onto him. Other free agent options next summer include St. Louis’ Barrett Jackman and Carolina’s Tim Gleason, but each will be hotly pursued come July 1, 2012; Greg Zanon and Aaron Rome are a bit more understated, and may be more realistic options.
The devastating power of expectations
Going into the season, the line of Ladd-Little-Wheeler was given the dubious title of the “#1 line”. And yet through *14 games, neither Little nor Wheeler had scored a goal, while Ladd had scored just 3. But perhaps “yet” was the wrong connector; maybe the sentence should have read “and naturally, through 14 games, neither had scored…”. (*Little scored 2 goals last night in the 15th game of the season. Wheeler is still scoreless).
Wheeler began last season with Boston, but was traded in mid-February, and played his first game with Atlanta on February 19th. He teamed up with Ladd and Little for the last 23 games, and the trio played well, recording 20 goals in all – nearly a goal per game.
(Wheeler – 7G, 10A | Ladd – 9G, 7A | Little – 4G, 11A)
So what was the difference? It’s almost as if the trio collectively suffered from the sophomore slump – which is nothing more than psychology and inertia. There’s very little media attention in Atlanta at the best of times, and when Wheeler was traded to Atlanta, the Thrashers were no longer a serious playoff contender. With little or no pressure to win, guys had the luxury of ‘playing loose’. The trio had a few good games together, and kept the momentum rolling for the remainder of the season. Contrast that with this season, where the team came into a hockey-starved market with a delirious fan-base and (perhaps) unreasonably high expectations. Pegged as the first line, L, L, & W got off to a slow start, and probably felt more and more pressure with each passing game. Players often say they start to grip their sticks a little tighter in an effort to ‘bear down’ – but it’s almost as if they’re trying too hard. Still unable to contribute to the offence, doubt naturally creeps into one’s mind, and the game becomes a lot less fun. Now it’s a small effort to come to the rink, and you have less energy and enthusiasm as a result.
Castaways or key cogs
If you bet that Nik Antropov and Kyle Wellwood would be two of the team’s top-3 scorers after 15 games, you’re special. In fact, if you told someone that before the season started, you would have been heckled. Most people had Kane, Ladd, Little, Wheeler, and even Scheifele ahead of those two. But with 11 and 10 points respectively, these leafs castaways have been very impressive. Antropov has great size and hands and is very effective down low and in front of the net. He was a great complement to Alex Burmistrov’s quick, darting style of play before getting hurt. And Wellwood is a crafty player with soft hands and great vision who helps create a lot of offence whenever he’s on the ice.
Their success is interesting because it’s in stark contrast to the story of Ladd, Little, and Wheeler. Each of them had the good fortune of flying under the radar – no one had high expectations for these players. And with the pressure off, each of them got off to a great start: Antropov scored the first goal in new Jets history, and Wellwood scored 8 seconds into the Jets’ eventual 1st win against Pittsburgh. Their play will be interesting to watch as the season goes on, as both have been criticized in the past for their inconsistency and lack of intensity.
Tobias Enstrom is one of the league’s best offensive defencemen. Losing him will hurt the team everywhere, as his 25+ minutes per game are irreplaceable, but the place where it hurts most is on the powerplay. I’m not exactly sure how this happened, but one day Claude Noel got up and decided that Tim Stapleton was the right man for the job. And while I think Stapleton has done an admirable job and earned all the minutes he’s gotten this year, his place on the 1st powerplay unit is conspicuous – or “marked by a noticeable violation of good taste”. While Johnny Oduya has had his struggles this season, he’s a better choice to help the powerplay, as he once ran powerplay’s in New Jersey (had two seasons of just under 30 points), while Stapleton – a 29-year-old career minor leaguer, has just 13 career NHL points.
By this point, I think we all agree that Alexander Burmistrov is a phenomenally talented player. At 20 years of age, he’s quick, dynamic, and creative. He’s a fan favourite, and has people moving to the edge of their seats every time he touches the puck. His calling cards are tremendous puck-handling and agility, which would be second-to-none, if not for one exception: fellow Russian Pavel Datsyuk.
It’s an all-too common trend to compare young players to older peers from their home country. Swedish scouts for instance, occasionally refer to prolific young defencemen as ‘the next Lidstrom’ despite few real similarities. (Victor Hedman and Adam Larsson have both suffered this comparison). Czech winger Michael Frolik was a phenom at age 16, and was naturally compared to Jaromir Jagr. And Swedish centre Nicklas Backstrom was called a less physical version of Peter Forsberg. (That one is actually not too bad). So you might think it’s simply convenient to compare Burmistrov to Datsyuk based on their cultural heritage. But that isn’t the case.
In relation to playing style, Burmistrov and Datsyuk have many similar traits. Each seems to control the puck as if it’s attached by some magnetic force. Each of them makes plays in traffic and at high speed. Each of them is more playmaker than passer, though Datsyuk is a better finisher at this point. And though Burmistrov’s defensive game is nowhere near Datsyuk’s yet, he does compete hard in the defensive end, which is impressive for a young skilled forward, and particularly uncommon from a Russian forward. Obviously Burmistrov has a long road ahead if he hopes to achieve that level – Pavel Valerievich Datsyuk is not only the world’s most dangerous guy one-on-one, but the best two-way player in the league, as evidenced by three straight Selke trophies from 2008-2010. But the raw talent is there if he can stay focused and work as hard as Datsyuk evidently has to get to this point.