Training camps open; intriguing questions in Winnipeg
It’s the day that many hockey fans have been eagerly anticipating. On Thursday, NHL training camps opened, and we are that much closer to the 2016-17 NHL season.
Sure, we were just treated to rookie tournaments around the league (including the Jets youngsters in Penticton) and we’ve had the tremendous World Cup of Hockey to satiate our appetites, but both are just teasers for the main event.
In Winnipeg, the Jets are coming into their most intriguing camp since their whirlwind move from Atlanta to Winnipeg five years ago.
Winnipeg Jets 2016 Training Camp Schedule and Rosters
There are some key questions that are already loudly being asked:
How many of the young players pushing for a spot on the roster are with the big club when the preseason ends?
Will Connor Hellebuyck move from the next one to the now one status?
And what of some of the veterans who have been valiant warriors for this club but seem to be facing pressure to maintain their spots? It’s no secret that Chris Thorburn and Mark Stuart are on the hot seat, and when it comes to Ondrej Pavelec, the picture is muddled at best.
First, let’s take a look at the no-brainers:
Patrik Laine is NHL-ready. The young Finnish phenom didn’t put up big points during the World Cup of Hockey, but he did confirm that he is a player. Against the very best in the world, he never looked out of place.
While Auston Matthews shone for Team North America, he played most of the tournament with Connor McDavid, who is going to make any linemate look good.
Laine looked solid on Finland’s top line. The only question remaining with Laine is does he start the season on the top line, or with Bryan Little on the second line.
Is there any spot BUT the second line for Laine? The young Finn may eventually get to that top line in 2016-17, but after the last half of the season that Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheelrer and Nikolaj Ehlers had as a unit, it is hard to imagine not giving them the opportunity to keep that chemistry burning hot.
The playoffs are no guarantee. Make no mistake. Just with the addition of Laine to this team, they are better than they were last year. But beyond that, will they get the improved team defence and better goaltending to push them into the postseason?
The biggest questions:
Trouble with Trouba?
Nobody has expressed any panic, but the Jacob Trouba question has loomed for weeks, months even, and there still are no answers. At the World Cup — where it appears only an Aaron Ekblad injury prevented Trouba from being Mr. Healthy Scratch – Trouba did say during an interview that he expected to be in the Jets lineup on opening night, but whether that proves to be the reality remains to be seen. Clearly, the Jets would be a weaker team without Trouba on the ice.
What is happening between the pipes?
Pavelec is into an expensive final year of his contract, Hellebuyck is NHL-ready and Michael Hutchinson appears to be stuck somewhere in between – not the guy or the next guy, but potentially looking at calling Las Vegas home one day soon? And, if the team sees Hutchinson as the odd man out in the net, would he even make it past waivers if the team sent him down to the farm? Many would argue the netminding question is the biggest one facing the team, and will have the biggest impact on the team’s playoff chances.
Old warriors versus young guns?
What happens with Chris Thorburn and Mark Stuart? The two have been warriors for this franchise in every sense of the word, and it is no secret that loyalty is a pretty significant buzzword with True North Sports and Entertainment. Few would be surprised to see Thorburn earn that 13th forward spot, but many will be disappointed with anything more than that. And, is there a spot for Stuart at all? With no Trouba that answer likely leans to yes, but with Trouba, then what? Does Josh Morrisey, the only Jets first rounder of their first four drafts not to find a regular spot in the lineup finally break through? Or is it off season pick up Brian Strait, who doesn’t appear to inspire confidence in many Jets observers.
Other big questions:
Kyle Connor? Some might suggest he is covered by the young guns talk, but he is a unique case. If the Jets had not moved up to second in the NHL draft and selected Laine, there would be much greater pressure and sky-high expectations for Connor after his incredible college season last year that him inexplicably passed over for the Hobey Baker. Will he crack the NHL lineup or is he destined for the Moose? It’s an intriguing question.
Alexander Burmistrov? A true enigma in this lineup, what does the future hold for him. The best way to label his return to the NHL last season after his KHL foray is ineffective. He remains skillful but not impactful. Does he have a spot in the top-9? Is he a fourth-line centre? If he is demoted to the AHL would he accept? Would another team make a waiver claim? Very unclear on all points.
The top line? Blake Wheeler. The newly-minted captain of the Jets has hit his stride as a bonafide NHL star. Does the added weight of the C on his chest impact his play? Will he rise to the occasion and shine even brighter, or do the added responsibilities bring him down?
Mark Schiefele almost hit 30 goals last season with much of that production coming after the team was pretty much out of any real race. Does his continued growth as a player continue and does he embrace the number one centre role? And can Ehlers build on the tremendous rookie campaign he enjoyed?
There is a lot of uncertainty heading into the season, with a lot of optimism and plenty of doubt. With a Central Division that is still arguably the toughest in hockey and am improving Western Conference on the whole, the playoffs are anything but a certainty once again this season.