Saturday, 28 September 2019

The Boys Are Back In Town

While Thin Lizzy's iconic song peaked at #12 on the US Charts and at #1 in Canada in 1976, it's hard not to be excited about the work that Kevin Cheveldayoff did over the past few days in signing snipers Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor to deals to get them back in double-blue jerseys for the upcoming season. If one considers that the Jets had more than sixty goals from last season sitting on the sidelines awaiting new deals, it's easy to see why pundits and prognosticators were debating Winnipeg's candidacy for inclusion as a Stanley Cup favorite this year. While those opinions may not have changed much with these signings, there is some relief in the Manitoba capital as the two snipers will rejoin the team as early as Monday.

It's not hard to imagine the Winnipeg Jets struggling to score goals without Connor and Laine this season against some of the better defensive teams in the league. It was pretty clear to see in the preseason that Scheifele and Wheeler will drive the bus when it come to generating scoring chances with players like Mathieu Perreault, Nikolaj Ehlers, Andrew Copp, and Mason Appleton chipping in at the depth-scoring level. There's nothing wrong with this setup as it is, but one would like a few more weapons which can ease the burden on all teammates when it comes to scoring while making it harder for defences to clamp down on a handful of players.

Instead, the Jets will role out their top-two lines as they did to start last season with Bryan Little occupying the spot between Laine and Ehlers. The top line of Connor-Scheifele-Wheeler will likely remain unchanged based on the success they've shown together, but perhaps head coach Paul Maurice needs to find a different combination if the Jets are going to exceed expectations this season. Personally, I have no issues with Wheeler and Scheifele being split up, and dropping Wheeler - who has shown himself to be an elite passer - down to the second line would likely be a boost for Laine's output. Ehlers would be moved up with Scheifele and Connor, and the speed of that line alone would drive teams mad.

However, one player who I believe should get a shot between Laine and Ehlers is David Gustafsson. The 2018 second-round pick has shown that he's capable of being sound defensively in his own zone, can skate with the big boys in the top-six, and has the creativity and imagination to be a playmaker when called upon by the coaches. Gustafsson, admittedly, isn't as refined as Scheifele when it comes to being a playmaking centerman in the NHL at this point, but finding a guy who has the hands to feed Laine hasn't exactly worked out for the Jets over the last two seasons either. Maybe it's time to give the kid a chance?

With the Dustin Byfuglien situation apparently remaining in status quo, the Jets have about $1 million in salary cap space to play with, meaning that a trade to improve the skills of whomever is paired with Laine is nearly out of the question. Solutions internally have not presented themselves in the past as Little and Laine have failed to click regularly, and the Jets desperately need both Connor and Laine doing what they do best in lighting the lamp if they hope to have a prayer of competing for a top finish in the Central Division. If Connor is back on his usual winger alongside Scheifele and Wheeler, that's a safe bet. It's Laine that needs a spark, and I'm not sure that Bryan Little beings that element.

Whatever the Jets decide regarding the second-line centerman position, Laine has to come in motivated and ready to contribute at both ends of the ice like he did in December last season when he scored 18 goals in the month. He was a physical force, he backchecked like a demon, he shot the puck without prejudice, and he looked engaged. If the Jets can get him going early this season in the same mentality, they'll win games because they have a weapon few other teams can match in Laine. If that means Bryan Little has to be unseated from the second line and replaced with the likes of a Gustafsson or a Copp or some other younger player, then it needs to happen sooner than later so that Laine and whomever plays the middle of that line can develop some chemistry.

As much as Laine was seen as selfish for making the comments he did to the Finnish reporter about playing with the top guys, he was right. He hasn't played with an elite passer for most of his career in Winnipeg, and he could be so much more effective if he did. The one thing that Laine has to remember is that there's a defensive zone that he needs to be better in, and, like his idol in Alexander Ovechkin, winning and playing with elite players won't happen if he's dogging it in the defensive zone.

The season for the Winnipeg Jets looks much brighter with these two stars in the lineup. As long as they shine as well as we know they can, there shouldn't be any question about how goals the Winnipeg Jets can score this season. It may simply come down to how many goals can Connor and Laine prevent by being defensively sound as well.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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