Winnipeg: Ten Things That Need to Happen to Make the Playoffs in 2011-2012
The Atlanta Thrashers finished 3rd in the Southeast with 80 points, twelve points out of a playoff spot. It's expected that the Board of Governors will approve the sale and relocation of the franchise to Winnipeg, Manitoba on June 21.
Much talk has been made about what the team will be called, and if and when they'll meet their goal of 13,000 season tickets, and other things. Let's focus on the product itself.
Winnipeg made the playoffs in their last season in the NHL. Here are ten things that need to happen for them to make the Stanley Cup playoffs in their triumphant return to the NHL.
10. Re-Sign Andrew Ladd
Ladd, 25, is the current captain of the ATL/WPG club, and is a restricted free agent this summer. The team's first priority should be in securing Ladd to a multi-year contract.
The former Stanley Cup champion and reigning team MVP set personal highs in goals and points last year. His leadership, veteran presence and production are all needed in Winnipeg to help that franchise be successful this season.
9. Continued Improvement from Evander Kane
Winnipeg fans will be in for a treat this year in watching Evander Kane improve into a more dominant player. After scoring 26 points in his rookie season, he improved to 43 last year, and will only be 20 years old at the start of training camp this year.
After scoring 19 goals last year, look for Kane to break the 30 goal and 60 point plateaus this season.
8. Nik Antropov Needs to Be an Effective Player
Last season was a disappointment for Antropov. The former first-rounder's point production fell by 28 points and his plus/minus fell by 30, even though he played in the same amount of games last year, and the year before.
Antropov is capable of scoring 20-25 goals and is capable of hitting the 60 point plateau. Could a return to Canada be just the change the 31 year old needs to rejuvenate his career?Winnipeg fans should hope so.
If the franchise wants to be successful in it's first year, Antropov needs to perform at the level that he is able to.
7. Overtime Effectiveness
Atlanta finished second in the Eastern Conference with 12 overtime losses. To put that in perspective, if they had won each of those overtime games, they would have finished third in their division and missed the playoffs by a single point.
There are two ways to remedy this problem. One way is to score in overtime or during the shootout, where they had a 5-7 record. The other way, and probably the more efficient way, is to win during regulation.
For that to happen, the next slide has to occur.
6. Keep the Puck out of the Net!
For the Winnpeg franchise to be successful, this scene has to happen less.
In 2010 - 2011, ATL gave up 269 goals, the highest total in the Eastern Conference, and 39 goals more then Tampa Bay, who had the highest total of any Eastern Conference playoff team.
The goaltending duo of Ondrej Pavelec (pictured) and Chris Mason need to significantly reduce the number of goals allowed in order to achieve better results. The franchise doesn't really have a budding backstop waiting in the wings, so the pressure is on Pavelec and Mason to perform for the Winnipeg faithful.
5. Draft Well
Winnipeg has the seventh pick in the NHL Entry Draft this summer. Each of their last three first round selections have gone on to play in the NHL in the following season (Zach Bogosian, Evander Kane, Alexander Burmistrov).
Winnipeg needs a scorer or a two-way forward. The QMJHL has two prospects, Sean Couturier and Jonathan Huberdeau, that would look good in a Winnipeg uniform (what that uniform will look like isn't known yet).
Couturier (pictured), 19, recently was named the Top Prospect in the QMJHL and was named the league's MVP. He's coming off of back-to-back 96 point seasons. At 6'4" and 200 lbs, he has potential to become a tremendous physical presence up front.
Huberdeau, who turns 18 this month, is coming off a Memorial Cup win with the Saint John Sea Dogs and won the MVP Award for the tournament. He finished the year with 105 points and a plus 59 rating.
If either of these players are available when Winnipeg's GM (also an uncertainty at this point) steps up to the microphone in Minnesota on Draft Day, they'd be wise to select one of these two Q stars.
4. Win in Their Division
For at least one season, and hopefully only one season, Winnipeg will play in the Southeast Division.
This means lots of travel time.
It also means more matchups against the President's Trophy winning Washington Capitals and their offense-laden line-up. It also means more game versus Tampa Bay and its impact players as well. And it also means more games with Carolina and one of the East's best goalies, Cam Ward (pictured).
ATL finished the year 9-7-8 against the Southeast, which is respectable, but still needs to improve, especially the 8 overtime losses against divisional rivals (compared to 4 OTL against the rest of the NHL).
Not only does Winnipeg have travel great distances to play their divisional rivals in 2010 - 2011, they'll have to play better against them in order to think about qualifying or the post season.
3. Dustin Byfuglien Has to Emerge as a Norris Candidate
The 26 year old defenseman had a great '10-'11 for ATL, scoring 20 goals and finishing second on the team in scoring. He also finished second in the NHL in Shots on Goal with 346. He also had 8 PPG and 6 game winners.
Byfuglien, who played parts of two seasons with Brandon of the WHL, went from a household name in Chicago, to relative obscurity in Atlanta, and will easily become a household name again in Manitoba.
Look for the All Star defenseman to thrive in Winnipeg. He put up numbers that are similar to current Norris-nominees Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber. If he maintains that type of production in WPG, look for his name to be on the Norris Trophy ballot next year.
2. Get Great Fan Support
It's often said that a motivating factor to help a team win is having the home crowd behind you.
The old Winnipeg Arena used to be one of the loudest buildings in hockey. Fan support in Winnipeg has never wavered. 'Peggers love their hockey.
This team will be playing in the smallest arena in the NHL, which should make it the loudest. I don't think the players will know what hit them the first moment they step onto the ice at the MTS Centre. There are hundreds of hockey fans in Atlanta, but there are thousands and thousands more in Manitoba, and that should inspire the players to perform well at home.
1. Spend Money This Offseason
Atlanta had one of the smallest payrolls in the league last year, at around $41 million dollars.
Hypothetically, Winnipeg's owners could (and should) spend $10-$15 million more than the Spirit ownership group did last season.
Who could they sign for that extra amount of money?
If they want a better backup goalie, Mike Smith ($2.2 mil) or Peter Budaj ($1.25 mil) are affordable options.
A winger? Scottie Upshall and Jussi Jokinen are available. For more money, Simon Gagne is available.
But one player, who can have an immediate impact and bring scoring and veteran leadership (plus proven success against the Southeast) is Brad Richards.
What a way for Winnipeg to make an immediate impact! He's roughly a 6.7 PPG player for his career (even higher in the postseason), is capable of 30 goals and 80-90 points, and on a team that could use more offense, he'd be a great addition.
He comes at a hefty cap hit, but if ownership wants to build a winner, Richards has that potential.
The NHL Is Back in Winnipeg!
What's more important than this list is that the NHL has returned to Winnipeg. Fans in Winnipeg have been patient, have worked hard to bring back the NHL, and deserve this opportunity.
The Winnipeg NHL team should fare well this upcoming season. I, like many others, am excited to see this team in action.