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Core Values: Evander Kane, Dustin Byfuglien lead complicated Jets

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Evander Kane and Dustin Byfuglien are among Jets' leaders, while Mark Scheifele is on the verge. (USATSI)
Evander Kane and Dustin Byfuglien are among Jets' leaders, while Mark Scheifele is on the verge. (USATSI)

In the salary cap era, where NHL teams have to be efficient with their money, it's important for each club to have a core group of players who set the foundation on which to build the rest of the team. This group often includes the players who consume the bulk of a team's cap space, while also providing the greatest on-ice impact.

With that in mind, Eye on Hockey introduces our summer series: "Core Values." We'll take the rest of summer to evaluate the group of five to seven players who make up the core of each team. Using criteria like point production, average age, how the players were acquired, total cost and cap hit, we'll detail which teams have the strongest cores and which need work. On top of that, we'll also gaze into the future to look at the players who could one day be part of this crucial group for each team.

Since returning to Canada, the Winnipeg Jets have been wrapped in the warming glow of the honeymoon phase of their existence. That is starting to change and things could get worse before they get better. As essentially the only team in the Central Division that made no significant improvements to its everyday roster this offseason, the Jets stand a good chance of ending the season with one of the worst records in the Western Conference, if not the worst.

Kevin Cheveldayoff's relative inactivity as general manager, with few impact additions since the team relocated from Atlanta, has concerns reaching an all-time high as the club enters its fourth season as Jets 2.0.

But there's one thing that isn't often mentioned about this club: Their best players are actually pretty darn good. The nucleus of the team has intriguing players that have been able to produce over their career, but it is all overshadowed by the fact that the general manager has done little to supplement the central core and goaltending remains a significant weakness.

Within the seven-player core we've designated for the Jets, there are four players who scored 20 or more goals last season, five with more than 40 points and it doesn't even include the incredibly promising and certain core-of-the-future players Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba.

The most interesting thing about the Jets' core as designated in this piece is that every single one of the players listed was acquired or drafted while the team was still in Atlanta. All the Jets have had to do is build around what was already in place for them and they haven't been able to do that effectively enough.

This is a team that should be better and if there was more of an effort to build depth around some prolific offensive players led by Evander Kane and Blake Wheeler, and fix the leak in net, the Jets might actually have a team for the good people of Winnipeg to be proud of again.

Not only that, but there are reinforcements coming after some solid years of drafting in Winnipeg, which was one of the massive failures while the team was in Atlanta. There is reason to believe the Jets can be better over the next few years, but success of any kind seems unlikely for 2014-15, with the playoffs a virtual impossibility in the Central Division and little faith that the front office will do enough to make this team better sooner.

Core Values: Winnipeg Jets

Players (Age, term remaining on contract): LW Evander Kane (23, 4 years), D/W Dustin Byfuglien (29, 2 years), RW Blake Wheeler (28, 5 years), LW Andrew Ladd (28, 2 years), C/W Bryan Little (26, 4 years), D Tobias Enstrom (29, 4 years), D Zach Bogosian (24, 6 years)

Total cap hit for 2014-15: $36,042,857 (52 percent of salary cap consumed by seven players)

Average age: 26.5

Total point production in 2013-14: 126 goals, 199 assists, 325 points (54.7 percent of team's total point production)

About the Core

Evander Kane: Constantly embroiled in controversy and trade rumors, Kane has had his tenure with the Jets overshadowed by happenings away from the rink. On the ice, however, he is a force. At just 23 years old, Kane is already a veteran of five NHL seasons. He was slowed by injuries last season, appearing in 63 games in 2013-14. Kane still managed to post 41 points, including 19 goals. He already has 200 points in 324 career games between the Thrashers and Jets and had that remarkable 30-goal season in 2011-12. Though the trade talks may persist, Kane is the kind of forward the Jets can continue building around. His youth, his contract and the team's current situation mean that Kane is a guy this team has to cling to. He can help bring them to the next level and be a playoff team if the supporting cast improves. How he was acquired: 2009 NHL Entry Draft, first round, fourth overall

Dustin Byfuglien: While bouncing between forward and defense last season, Byfuglien remained an offensive force. Though there are some defensive deficiencies, keeping Byfuglien at forward instead of defense is somewhat puzzling. He would play more minutes as a defenseman and have potential for a bigger on-ice impact. Byfuglien matched his career best with 20 goals and reached new highs with his 36 assists and 56 points in 2013-14 while splitting the season between forward and defense. Having that kind of scoring threat on the back end is a rare advantage. You might give up a little defensive edge, but Byfuglien has shown strong possession numbers throughout his career. It's not like the Jets' defensive group is teeming with better options, either. Though he will support scoring depth up front, getting Byfuglien on the ice for 24 minutes a night seems more desirable than having him out there only every third or fourth shift. Since joining the Thrashers in 2010-11, Byfuglien has 190 points in 268 games, an average of 0.71 points per game. Though there have long been complaints about his weight and commitment level, he has provided the team enough on the ice for that kind of talk to melt away. How he was acquired: Traded from the Chicago Blackhawks with Brent Sopel and Ben Eager for Marty Reasoner, Joey Crabb, Jeremy Morin, and first- and second-round picks

Blake Wheeler has become a scoring machine in Winnipeg with no signs of slowing. (USATSI)
Blake Wheeler has become a scoring machine in Winnipeg with no signs of slowing. (USATSI)

Blake Wheeler: Since the Thrashers moved to Winnipeg, few players have responded as positively to the new location as Wheeler. Over the past three years in Winnipeg, Wheeler has 174 points. He posted a career-best 28 goals and 69 points last season. The 6-foot-5 forward has really come into his own in this organization over the four years he has been there with a points-per-game-average 0.32 better than it was in his first three seasons with the Boston Bruins. Over the past two years, Wheeler is averaging 0.36 goals per game. His shooting percentage has been a bit higher over the past two seasons and he's shooting more overall. As one of the focal points of this offense, Wheeler should continue hovering between 60 and 70 points and could soon notch his first 30-goal season as this appears to be the heart of his prime. He still has five years remaining on his contract. With Wheeler and Kane, the Jets have a pair of solid top-six wingers that could give any opponent fits. How he was acquired: Traded from the Boston Bruins with Mark Stuart for Rich Peverly and Boris Valabik

Andrew Ladd: As the team's captain, Ladd has taken on some of the criticism for the team's performances. Meanwhile, he has been nothing but consistent given his role on the team and the way he has produced. Since being traded to the team while they were still in Atlanta, Ladd has produced 209 points in 289 games. He had a remarkable 2012-13 in which he averaged nearly a point per game and has only missed five games over his Thrashers/Jets career. Of those 209 points, 98 are goals. He has scored at least 23 in each of the past three full seasons. Ladd may not be the ideal guy to be a top-six winger in the NHL, but he has thrived in the role, providing physicality and points. Ladd also offers the Jets a possible trade chip over the next two years. They may have to break up the core a bit and though a veteran like Ladd has been a leader for this group, he's the kind of player a Cup contender might pay a premium near the deadline to acquire one of these years. It's something the Jets will have to consider even though the team has been essentially immobile on the trade market. How he was acquired: Traded from the Chicago Blackhawks for Ivan Vishnevskiy and a second-round pick

Bryan Little: Coming off a career-best 64 points in 82 games last season, Little showed why the Jets are probably a salvageable team. Their top six can put up points. In five of his seven seasons in the NHL, Little has averaged 0.63 points per game or better and he has actually been trending up. Essentially Winnipeg's No. 1 center, Little has proven to be a solid setup man, but also has a 30-goal season in his career. Having Wheeler and Ladd on either side of him definitely helps keep the production going. The fact that the Jets have a serviceable first line helps. The lack of depth at center after Little was an issue last season as top prospect Mark Scheifele is still getting his NHL legs under him, but the addition of Mathieu Perreault will help some. Little is unthreatened at this point to lose his spot on the top line and if he has a repeat of last season, he probably won't lose the job for a while. Is he an ideal first-line center? Probably not compared against the rest of the league, but he did very well last season. Little will turn 27 heading into this season and comes at an affordable $4.7 million cap hit for the next four seasons. That's strong value as he seemingly enters his prime years. How he was acquired: 2006 NHL Entry Draft, first round, 12th overall

Tobias Enstrom: The old man of the core will turn 30 early in the season, but Enstrom has quietly put together a strong career. Enstrom's points rate dropped to its lowest average in his career in 2013-14, which may be a little cause for concern. He is three years removed from back-to-back 50-point seasons while with the Thrashers. If he can get that kind of production back, the loss of Byfuglien from the back end is softened a bit. After Enstrom missed 26 games in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season, there's reason to wonder if lingering effects impacted his contributions last season since they were so abnormally low. Despite his assist rate dropping, Enstrom did have 10 goals, which matches his career high. He's definitely a pass-first defenseman though and when he's at the top of his game, he's really good at it. Was last season just a blip or will his production continue its decline? It's too early to really say for sure, especially since Enstrom saw his points start going up late in the season. With four more years remaining on his contract as the highest-paid Jet, he remains a huge part of this blue line. He averaged nearly 24 minutes a game, the second-highest rate of his career. How he was acquired: 2003 NHL Entry draft, eighth round, 239th overall

Zach Bogisian: Placed as part of this group due to the fact that he is in the early part of a seven-year contract, Bogosian has been solid, but perhaps not reaching expectations. The former No. 3 overall pick has not produced like he did in junior and is looking more like a physical shutdown defender than a strong all-around defender. That's why there's a good chance that despite Bogosian's usage and importance to the team, he may end up getting surpassed in the near future by young rearguard Jacob Trouba. Part of Bogosian's problem so far is his inability to stay healthy. He has only one NHL season under his belt in which he missed fewer than 10 games, in 2009-10. Last season, Bogosian managed just 55 games and had 11 points. Things were actually looking a lot more promising for Bogosian to round into the defenseman he was projected to be in 2011-12 when he had 30 points in 65 games. He does generate a fair amount of shots and his size and physicality are notable traits, but this team is going to need more out of Bogosian and soon. How he was acquired: 2008 NHL Entry Draft, first round, third overall

Who's next in line

Jacob Trouba could grow into a star defenseman for the Jets. (USATSI)
Jacob Trouba could grow into a star defenseman for the Jets. (USATSI)

The Jets have two extremely exciting young players who saw a lot of action with the team last season. The first is Mark Scheifele, the club's first draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets era of this franchise. The other is Jacob Trouba, who showed as a rookie defenseman that defensive help is on the way for the blue line.

Scheifele performed extremely well in his first full-time season in the NHL. He had 13 goals and 34 points in 63 games. That's a respectable 44-point pace for a full 82-game season for the 21-year-old. He is likely to be the team's No. 2 center this season and it could represent a big opportunity for him to take the next step as an NHL forward.

Trouba, meanwhile, was a bit of a revelation. Had he not suffered a serious neck injury during the season, he may have been a more serious Calder Trophy contender. The youngster had a surprising 29 points in 65 games from the blue line, including 10 goals. At just 19 years old and one year removed from college hockey, few rookie defensemen have made the transition as smoothly as Trouba. Now with a year of professional development under his belt, Trouba should be a top-four defenseman for the Jets. If he stays healthy, he might even see top-pairing time at some point if he continues on the path he started following last season.

The Jets also have a host of intriguing prospects below the NHL level. First-round picks like Josh Morrissey offer a lot of excitement. The 19-year-old defenseman had 73 points in 59 games in the WHL last season. Again, that's defenseman Josh Morrissey. It was a massive uptick in production from his first two junior seasons.

The Jets' most recent first-rounder is also fascinating. Danish superstar prospect Nikolaj Ehlers had 104 points in the QMJHL last year and provides a supremely high skill level.

Perhaps one of the most important prospects in all of Winnipeg's system is goaltender Connor Hellebuyck. The former fifth-round pick was incredible in two college seasons at UMass-Lowell. As a freshman, he posted a .952 save percentage in 24 games. He followed that up with a .941 mark in 29 contests in leading Lowell to a resurgence as a Division 1 program. He was named college hockey's goalie of the year. He's going to need AHL time to get his pro reps in, but the 21-year-old could be the heir to Ondrej Pavelec, who won't exactly be leaving big shoes to fill.

Overview

This next season may yet still be ugly for the Jets. Considering their weakness in net is not expected to improve and the depth of the lineup leaves plenty of questions, it is fair to expect a rough go in 2014-15.

When you take a step back and look at the core group, it kind of seems like they're going to waste a bit in Winnipeg. There's so much talent in the central group and the prospect pool is finally starting to get deeper after some barren years. The inflexibility to make moves and spend to the salary cap may continue to hurt competitiveness for this organization.

The biggest move of the offseason was signing Mathieu Perreault, which will help the depth at center for sure and possibly bolster the scoring, but it's not the high-impact move Jets fans have seemingly craved.

It also would seem that the team is going to continue to run in place as long as the goaltending situation looks like it does now. Pavelec has consistently posted among the worst save percentages of the primary starting goaltenders in the league. His career mark of .906 just isn't going to cut it with a shallower defense in front of him.

The Jets have the scoring talent up front to make some things happen, but when they're allowing so many goals it's all canceled out.

Pavelec will turn 27 before the season, but he already has seven years in the league. The 288 appearances he has had at his age leads to expectations of him surging into his prime right about now, but his .901 save percentage last season was abysmal. He still has three years remaining on his current contract.

It would appear the Jets stand to earn a high draft pick next season as even with their solid top-six forward corps, they just don't stack up against the rest of the Central Division. Since the team has been either unwilling or unable to make trades, they have to bank on all of their young guys hitting over the next few years otherwise the current core as constructed really is going to go to waste.

The silver lining is in the core. Players like Kane, Wheeler, Ladd, Little, Enstrom and the young guys like Schiefele and Trouba give the Jets some solid NHLers to bring the entertainment value and keep the future looking at least a little brighter.

If Paul Maurice can work some magic in his first full season behind the bench with the club, then maybe things will start looking up for the Jets. There's no question they have something to build off of. It's not like they would have to do a complete tear down to be competitive. They just have to do something, anything to start giving the long-suffering Winnipeg fans something to cheer about.

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