Colour me Impressed: Jets Camp 2013

Jets' forward Anthony Peluso bloodies the 36-million-dollar man, David Clarkson.

Jets’ forward Anthony Peluso bloodies the 36-million-dollar man, David Clarkson.

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In spite of increased competition at this year’s training camp, Anthony Peluso may have won himself a job with the Winnipeg Jets. Just 24 years of age, he’s a legitimate NHL heavyweight at 6’3, 235 lbs. He also acquitted himself quite well against the Oilers on Tuesday, scoring the game winning goal, and looking surprisingly comfortable handling the puck – especially for a guy who typically makes more use of his fists than his stick. And if he does make the team, part of the credit will lie in his instinctive response to a near-tragic incident last season.

It was February 21, 2013, and Zach Redmond lay in a pool of his own blood. In a freak accident, then- teammate Antti Miettinen skated over Redmond’s leg, severing his femoral artery, and triggering a potentially fatal bleed-out. Who was first on the scene? Peluso. Without wasting a second, he grabbed a towel from the bench and applied pressure to the wound, helping to slow the cascade of blood from Redmond’s upper leg: http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/miracle-on-ice-192667711.html

Credited as one of the key people who saved Redmond’s life, Peluso downplayed his role in subsequent interviews, which only further endeared him to fans. Furthermore, it cemented his reputation as a good teammate – a fact that was not lost on management.
Almost every team has someone like Peluso – an easy going guy who stands up for his teammates, doesn’t take himself too seriously, and seems to get along with everyone. And often, it’s the tough guy in the room. In Boston, it’s Shawn Thornton. In Phoenix, Paul Bisonette. Georges Laraque played the role in many cities over the years. And for a time in Toronto, it was Wade Belak. Peluso may never make a big impact on the ice, but as an extra forward, who can step in and out of the lineup as needed, and keep his teammates lose, there may not be a better choice.

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In his heyday, Olli Jokinen was a big guy who skated well, and had a nose for the net. But last season, he looked a bit lost on the ice; he was a guy entering his mid-30’s, who was missing a step, and all too aware of it. But after being written off by pretty much everyone – myself included – I’m pleased to say that Olli looks to have turned back the clock, at least a little bit. At one point, Devin Setoguchi made a pass to his left, and a player burst through the middle of the ice in chase of it. I turned to my friend and said “who was that?” We looked at each other with blank faces, until I spotted the player going off the ice, and realized it was Jokinen. We each muttered “wow…he looks good,” but quietly, almost to ourselves, as if to temper expectations.

Despite Olli’s pitiful performance last season, there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic about his play this year. Beyond the fact that he’s ashamed of how he played, he’s also in a contract year, and he won’t have anywhere to play in 2014 if he repeats last year’s folly. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also that once-in-four-years, maybe-never-again event called the Olympics. Olli is a lock to make the Finnish squad if he plays well, but if he has another disappointing year, it would be easy to pass over a 35-year-old, run-down centre for a young stud like 18-year old Sasha Barkov. And if you don’t think that Olli knows that, then you don’t know Olli. Olli knows.

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Based on everything I had read about Eric O’Dell – stats, scouting reports, etc – he sounded like a lesser version of Bryan Little. And after watching him play on Tuesday against Edmonton, that’s basically the impression I came away with. O’Dell is a centre iceman who shoots right handed, has good dangles, a good shot, and likes having the puck on his stick. He’s a little bigger than Little, but also not as quick. He made a nice play in the 2nd period, taking a short pass on his forehand in the Oilers zone, quickly pulling the puck to his backhand to shield it from a defender, and lifting a high shot, which found the goalie’s glove. Even though he didn’t score, the best thing about the play wasn’t the skill it took, but the quick decision he made not to shoot the puck. Most players would have fired it without a second thought, and 9/10 shots from that spot would have gone off the defender’s leg/stick. Instead, he had the composure to make a quick move in tight, and get a good chance on goal.

Barring injury, it looks like O’Dell versus Scheifele for that 2nd/3rd line centre role – a battle in which Scheifele has the inside track. But O’Dell is emerging as a nice call-up option if there’s an injury to one of the top-3 centres.

Note: If you missed the more extended write-up I did on O’Dell, including his heart surgery, click here

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Anybody heard of this hot-shot new defenceman? He goes by the name of Jacob Trouba. If you’re reading this, chances are very good that you have. Because he played in college last year, it was tough to get direct reports about him for most of the season, but by the end of the year, Jets management were raving about his size, mobility, composure, and abrasiveness on the ice. The common fan caught a glimpse of Jake at last year’s World Juniors, where he was named the top defenceman – a rare feat for an 18-year-old, given that 19-year-olds generally dominate the tournament. And since the day he signed a contract with the Winnipeg Jets – foregoing his last three years of college eligibility – he was anointed by many as the next great Winnipeg Jets defenceman.

But many forget that Trouba is still 19 years old. He’s only been driving cars (legally) for about three years, and voting for one. He’s a teenager. And he’s being asked to play against men, who are bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, more skilled, more mature, and more experienced than anyone he’s ever played against.

There’s nothing wrong with having high expectations – both from an organizational standpoint, and from the common fan’s. The problem arises when the expectations also place a best-before date. Sure, in some cases – like Drew Doughty, and Erik Karlsson – sublime talent manifests itself early, and everything clicks. (Doughty was a Norris Trophy nominee and Olympic gold medalist at 20, and a Stanley Cup Champion at age 22. Karlsson won the Norris Trophy at age 22. ) But for most defencemen, it takes a while to put it all together. The great Nicklas Lidstrom – thought by many to be one of the top-5 best defencemen ever to play the game, didn’t even start his NHL career until he was 22. And although he was very good from the start, he didn’t win the Norris Trophy until he was 30! (He ended up winning 7 in all. Seven!) The same can be said for many, if not most others, including Duncan Keith (winner at age 27), Scott Niedermayer (age 30), and Zdeno Chara (age 32). So while we might reasonably expect Trouba to play well in his early 20’s, don’t expect him to fully blossom for 5-10 years.

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Here are some other things I noticed in Tuesdays game:

  • I was impressed with Grant Clitsome. Granted, Edmonton didn’t bring their top guys, but Clitty looked very mobile out there, and he played very aggressively. He pinched a lot, but mostly at good times, and he really pressed the forward trying to leave the zone. He also likes coming into the slot with the puck to attack the net, something he started doing late last season, and led him to him finishing second among Jets defencemen in scoring. http://www.hockeydb.com/ihdb/stats/leagues/seasons/teams/0063782013.html While many Jets fans don’t think he’s capable of playing a top-4 role, I think his game is showing signs of growth. Although he’s 28, he’s only played parts of 4 years in the NHL, and only 2 as an everyday player. He seems pretty sharp off the ice, and with his skill and mobility, all he really needs to do is become more reliable in his decision making and sure-handedness to become a fixture in the Jets top-4.
  • Carl Klingberg was a second round pick of the Thrashers in 2009. He’s always been a bigger guy who skates well, but it just doesn’t look like he has NHL-quality hands. He hasn’t put up good impressive numbers at any level of hockey, and it’s unlikely he ever becomes more than a spare part for an NHL team. He scored yesterday, off a nice pass from Eric Tangradi, but even the finish looked awkward, as he slid it – seemingly accidentally – through the five hole, when most guys would have shot for the (wide open) top half of the net. Unless he has a big year in the AHL this year, don’t expect him to earn much playing time with the Jets unless there are a lot of injuries.
  • Devin Setoguchi continues to impress – he’s quick and skilled, and has a very good shot. Beyond just his quickness, he always seems to have a lot of jump, very similar to Bryan Little. The only on-ice concern for me is the fact that Noel wants to pair him with Evander Kane, and, worse yet – Olli Jokinen. Each of those three like carrying and shooting the puck, but none of them is a puck distributor/play-maker. Hopefully Scheifele can break up the monotony find chemistry with at least one of Kane/Setoguchi.
  • Speaking of whom, what would a Jets update be without Mark Scheifele. Noel and Chevy must be getting sick of every reporter (and his dog) trying to find out which line Scheifele will play on this year. They jump through the hoops since they’re polite, but the question is somewhat inane, and the answer is line 2, or line 3 – not sure yet since half the guys in the middle of the lineup are new. (Literally half – Setoguchi, Frolik, and Halischuk – who is definitely in the conversation). As for his play Tuesday, he made a really nice play in the 2nd to cut around the D, and fire it just over the crossbar in almost one fluid motion. If that shot goes in, everybody’s talking about it for days.

Jets News: Rookie Randoms, Winning with Wellwood, Training Camp Invitees

Cheveldayoff, Scheifele, and Noel

Rookies Update

The Jets’ inaugural rookie camp kicked off Saturday at the MTS Iceplex in front of hundreds of fans eager to get their first taste of Jets action. Overall the practice was a bit anticlimactic, as the coaches merely ran the rookies through a series of intricate drills, but Mark Scheifele still managed to impress with his great shot and puckhandling ability.

Then last night the Jets rookies took to the ice as a team, playing their first contest in the Penticton rookie tournament which includes prospects from Edmonton, Vancouver, Calgary, and San Jose. They posted a 4-0 win over San Jose’s rookies, with goals from Levko Koper, Mark Scheifele, and Jason Gregoire. While several players made a strong effort, it was Scheifele who stood head and shoulders above all the rest. He scored a shorthanded breakaway goal on a quick backhand deke and added an assist by threading a pass through a defender’s legs perfectly onto Jason Gregoire’s stick. While he didn’t hit the scoresheet, Ivan Telegin displayed lots of skill and poise when in control of the puck, especially on the powerplay where he’d set up along the right half-wall and draw in opposing penalty killers before distributing the puck to an open man. Continue reading

Winnipeg Jets Rookie Camp

Jets rookie camp begins this Saturday at 2 pm at the MTS Iceplex. It represents the first opportunity for management to evaluate their prospects  first-hand, and will help them determine which of these young players may have NHL talent. There’s no doubt that the new franchise’s first ever selection, 7th overall pick Mark Scheifele, will garner the most attention over the weekend, but there are several other players to watch.

(For more on Scheifele, click here)

Prior to this summer’s draft, Carl Klingberg was Winnipeg’s best forward prospect. He’s a 20-year-old Swedish player with good size who possesses a lot of raw ability. Don’t be soured by his seemingly low stats, as he was a 19-year-old playing in Sweden’s best professional league (the Swedish Elite League). When among his peers, he stands out as one of the better ’91 born Swedish forwards – last year he scored 3 goals in 6 games at the World Junior Championships. Continue reading

To Fight Another Day

4th overall pick in 2009, Evander Kane

Why losing today will help the Jets win tomorrow

Many people are asking why the Jets have been so inactive in the free agent market. Is it that no one wants to play in Winnipeg? Are they simply too cheap? Perhaps there’s another explanation. Take a peak at the organizational chart below:

JETS ORGANIZATIONAL DEPTH CHART
NHL
LW C RW LD RD G
Ladd Little Wheeler Enstrom Byfuglien Pavelec
Kane Burmistrov Antropov Hainsey Bogosian Mason
Thorburn Slater UFA/Trade Oduya Stuart
Glass Cormier Rypien Jones
Stapleton
AHL
LW C RW LD RD G
Gregoire Maxwell Mahacek Meech Flood Manino
Klingberg Gagnon Pettersson Festerling Postma
Holzapfel O’Dell Kulda Zubarev
Chiarot Redmond
Junior/College
LW C RW LD RD G
Lowry Scheifele Brassard Yuen Serville Kasdorf
Leveille Telegin Melchiori

NHL

Promising youngsters with Kane, Burmistrov, Little, Bogosian, Pavelec, and a few just entering their prime – Byfuglien, Enstrom, Ladd, Wheeler. Definitely not a playoff roster.

UPDATE: The Jets acquired RW Eric Fehr shortly after this article was written, filling the “3rd line RW” spot I had held open for an established NHLer. Fehr – a product of Winkler, Mb – is a very talented winger who has been hampered by injuries throughout his career thus far. (Back and shoulder problems.)

AHL

Solid defensive depth, but the only d-men that are likely to have significant NHL careers are Postma and Kulda. Klingberg is a big, fast, skilled winger, but the jury is out on whether he has top-6 potential. Maxwell and Mahacek are nearly NHL ready, but neither looks like they’ll ever play in the top-6. The rest will probably never play a full season in the NHL.

UPDATE: Since the writing of this article, the Jets have acquired Kenndal McArdle – a quick, hard-working forward who has some potential to play in the NHL as a 3rd or 4th liner – and signed Jason Gregoire, a player with top-6 potential. Gregoire is a goal scorer, and about as good a prospect as Klingberg. He is also two years older than Klingberg, and closer to being NHL-ready.

Junior Prospects

The most problematic segment of all. The only prospect that has any chance of being an impact player is 1st rounder Mark Scheifele. The next best prospect is Russian centre Ivan Telegin, but it’s very difficult to project what (if anything) he might become at the NHL level. The rest are bottom-6 forwards and 3rd pairing D at best.

THE REALITY

With a non-playoff roster in the NHL, very few quality prospects in the AHL, and only one high-end junior prospect, Jets management knows exactly what this team needs: high draft picks. That doesn’t mean that the team can’t be competitive in the here and now, but ‘competitive’ would be best defined as playing in tight games rather than piling up wins.

I think I see the strategy. A solid goaltending tandem combined with a good crop of defencemen should keep the games close, providing fans a team that’s good enough to stomach. If the goal was to make the playoffs now, they would have added 3 forwards capable of playing in the top-9; that is the obvious and pressing need. The fact that they haven’t added any quality forwards (Glass is a 4th liner; Rypien is a fringe NHLer) leads me to believe that they’ll try out the Cormier’s, Maxwell’s and Mahacek’s up front and accept a lottery pick this time next summer.

I’m 100% in support of this strategy. Why add some complementary pieces on one or two year contracts just so you can barely sneak into the playoffs? I think it’s crucial that a team finish either in the top 5 or bottom 5 overall. At the beginning of each year, you can usually name about 5 teams that are truly ready to compete for the Stanley Cup. Meanwhile, only the bottom 5 teams (often fewer) have a shot at a truly magnificent prospect at the draft. Certainly there’s more room at the top – a team can move from 7th to 1st within a few years with responsible drafting and development. But to go from the middle of the pack to serious contention is extremely difficult.

How come? Well, to win a Stanley Cup, obviously you need to have several excellent players. There are only three ways to acquire players: through draft, trade, or signing. Generally to get a great player in a trade, you need to give up a great (or potentially great) player. There are examples that disprove this, but they are the exception rather than the rule. There are very few top-line forwards, top-pairing defencemen, or elite goalies available in free agency, as teams make resigning these types of players a top priority. For instance, of the douzens of free agents signed this off-season, only one – Brad Richards – is unquestionably an impact player. Furthermore, free agency isn’t a level playing field. For years, even average free agents have been avoiding places like Edmonton, Columbus, Atlanta, Minnesota, Florida, and (until recently) Buffalo in favour of more desirable teams/cities like New York, Toronto, Boston, Vancouver, Chicago, etc. For a team like the Jets, free agency is not a viable means of acquiring top talent.

That leaves the draft. The draft is the best – some say the only way – to build a team. When you look at great teams, generally their core (best) players were drafted and developed by the organization:

Pittsburgh – Crosby, Malkin, Fleury, Staal, Letang, Orpik

Detroit – Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Franzen, Holmstrom, Lidstrom, Kronwall

Chicago – Toews, Kane, Bolland, Keith, Seabrook, Hjalmarsson (though not Sharp)

Washington – Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin, Laich, Green, Carlson, Alzner

Vancouver – Sedin, Sedin, Kesler, *Burrows, Raymond, Edler, Bieksa

Buffalo – Miller, Myers, Vanek, Roy, Ennis, Stafford, Pominville

*Burrows was signed and developed by Vancouver alone – basically akin to drafting

There are small exceptions. The two best players Boston Bruins from this past year are Zdeno Chara and Tim Thomas, both of whom were signed through free agency. However, Thomas was not an elite goalie when he was signed. In fact, no one (probably including the Bruins) expected him to be anything more than a good backup, otherwise there would have been intense competition for his services. Also, four of their five most important forwards were drafted – Krejci, Bergeron, Marchand, Lucic. (Horton came over in a trade). San Jose is another. Their best player – Joe Thornton – was acquired from the Bruins in one of the most lopsided deals of the decade. They also acquired their top defenceman (Boyle), a top sniper (Heatley, who has since become Havlat), and a top D (Burns) through trade, and their goalie (Niemi) through free agency. However, it is worth mentioning that in order to make those trades, they needed to give up once high draft picks, including Marco Sturm (21st overall, 1996), Brad Stuart (3rd overall in 1998), Milan Michalek (6th overall, 2003), Devin Setoguchi (8th overall, 2005), Ty Wishart (16th overall, 2006), and Charlie Coyle (28th overall, 2010). So although these deals break the mould, good drafting still played a large role. (LA is a similar story – a team who drafted a few core pieces in Doughty, Kopitar, Brown, etc, but used other important draft prospects to acquire talent, i.e Schenn and Simmonds for Mike Richards).

First round talents are essential. Everyone knows that Detroit pulled Datsyuk and Zetterberg from the depths of obscurity, but this is rare. Of the top-30 point producers in the NHL last year, 5 of them were 1st overall picks, 4 went 2nd overall, 3 went 3rd overall, and another 11 were first round picks. Far more dumbfounding is the following stat: of the top-20 goal scorers in the NHL last year, ONLY ONE (Patrick Sharp) was not drafted in the first round. (The previous year, only 2 of the top 19 were drafted past the first round.). Goal scoring doesn’t tell the whole story, but with second assists filling scoresheets on an all-too-regular basis, goal totals are probably the single best statistical expression of talent. And acquiring talent on draft day operates like money in a pyramid scheme – most of it goes to the top.

As the summer goes on, I’ll be looking at other draft related topics. One thing I’m particularly interested in is a nature-nurture style debate – are good hockey players drafted, or developed? It’s a chicken-and-egg thing, but you can learn a bit if you look at opposite sides of the spectrum: failed 1st round picks, and glorious late round gems. Is there anything common to the groups? Absolutely. For now I’ll say this: the top four scorers drafted furthest from the first round were developed by just two teams.