With the real dog days of summer upon us in full force, we're going to predict what we think the top four lines of the Winnipeg Jets will be for the upcoming 2011-12 season.
For the sake of being somewhat unpredictable, I think there may be some small surprises, as well as some obvious guesses.
First Line: Andrew Ladd—Nik Antropov—Evander Kane
Nik Antropov's 6'6" frame is the largest body up front for the Jets by one inch, over winger Blake Wheeler, and thus is a no brainer to be the first-line centre come opening night. But can he cash in with the team now that they have moved to Winnipeg?
He had a career high in points in Atlanta in 2009-10, with 67 (24 goals, 43 assists), although he was playing some of the season with Ilya Kovalchuk.
Evander Kane only keeps getting better, and his stock should rise high enough to be a first-line player on this team, beating out Bryan Little. Kane collected 43 points (19 goals, 24 assists) in his sophomore season in 2010-11, and is only going to get better.
Andrew Ladd had a career season in 2010-11 with 59 points (29 goals, 30 assists), which eclipsed his previous career high of 49 points two seasons ago with the Chicago Blackhawks. Ladd signed a five-year contract with the Jets as a restricted free agent, and is the team's captain going into the future. His success and leadership are the cornerstone of this team going forward.
Second Line: Bryan Little—Alexander Burmistrov—Blake Wheeler
Alexander Burmistrov had a promising rookie season last year, with a few highlight-reel goals and 20 points in 74 games. Being put into the NHL so quickly after being the eighth overall pick last season, his learning curve could have been somewhat affected, but his talent showed through in some games, and he can only get better.
On his wings are two of the more talented young wingers in the game. It will remain to be seen if Bryan Little takes a centre role within Claude Noel's offensive system or if he stays on the wing to use his speed down the side. Little is coming off two sub-par seasons with 34 points (13 goals, 21 assists) in 2009-10 and 48 points (18 goals, 30 assists) in 2010-11, after he posted 31 goals and 51 points two seasons ago.
Blake Wheeler signed a two-year deal this summer as an RFA with the Jets, looking to be a big part of the offense after he had his most productive time in the NHL with the Thrashers, scoring 17 points in only 23 games at the end of last season. At 6'5", Wheeler will be a big part of the offense.
Third Line: Eric Fehr—Jim Slater—Patrice Cormier
With the addition of Eric Fehr, the Jets' third line will have some scoring threat, as Fehr scored 21 goals in 2009-10 and scored 10 or more in each of the last three seasons. Being the hometown Manitoba boy will make Fehr an instant fan favourite.
Jim Slater, a longtime Thrasher, will be the grit down the middle, along with a young, gritty Patrice Cormier. Slater has 100 points in 371 career games over six seasons, all in Atlanta.
Cormier played in 21 games last year with the Thrashers, collecting two points (one goal and one assist).
Fourth Line: Tanner Glass—Ben Maxwell—Chris Thorburn/Rick Rypien/Jason Jaffray
The grit of Tanner Glass, Chris Thorburn and Rick Rypien will definitely help the Jets be a gritty team, and a hard team to match up against, if these pests are on.
Thorburn, a Thrasher vet, has played his last four seasons in Atlanta, scoring 65 points and collecting 362 PIMs in 313 games.
Rypien, a former Manitoba Moose, has had a long history in Winnipeg, and should be a fan favourite after his time with the Vancouver Canucks. Rypien collected 226 PIMs and 16 points in 119 career games with the Canucks over the past six seasons.
Glass, who was a part of the Canucks' run to the Stanley Cup Final last spring, has 233 PIMs and 23 points in 184 career games with Vancouver and the Florida Panthers.
Jason Jaffray, another ex-Moose, may be given another look at joining the team, as he became a big piece of the Moose franchise, especially in their run to the Calder Cup Finals in 2009. Jaffray has 10 points in 36 career NHL games with Vancouver and the Calgary Flames.
Rounding out the fourth line is centre Ben Maxwell, a piece of the Brent Sopel trade with the Montreal Canadiens. Maxwell, 23, had two points (one goal and one assist) in 12 games with the Thrashers after spending the last few years with the Hamilton Bulldogs of the AHL.
Next In Line
Carl Klingberg, at 6'3" and 205 pounds, could be another big winger the Jets could be very happy with in the near future.
Kenndal McArdle could finally have a chance to break into the NHL full-time as a third- or fourth-line grinder. But he has many grinders to leapfrog to get into the lineup full-time.
Aaron Gagnon has the potential to be a third- or fourth-line centre, but with the depth up the middle, his training camp could spell his fortune for the upcoming season.