Friday, December 18, 2020

Jets Preview: Igor Ulanov Autograph Card

This will likely be the preface to all of this year's Season Preview posts: 2020 is a different beast and requires adaptability; in my case, it means the joint posts with my "main/personal" blog will not be in the "player here/analysis there" format but rather the entire scope of the analysis will take place here and the player will have some sort of direct connection to what's written. Two more caveats: at this point, the NHL has not even confirmed the division make-ups yet despite the season being set to start a month from now, and several impact players such as 25-to-30-goal scorer Mike Hoffman and 20-goal journeyman forward Anthony Duclair, among others, haven't found a team yet. And quite a few teams are currently above the salary cap, which means there is much maneuvering left to do.

That being said, let's start with the one division we're pretty sure is going to happen if only because of the border situation, the Canadian/North Division, and the Winnipeg Jets.

As recently as two years ago, the Jets were a Stanley Cup contender, with a young, up-and-coming goalie, an extremely underrated offense made up of two very potent lines of point-per-game players - including a possible eventual 50-goal scorer - and tremendous depth, and an impenetrable defense. Connor Hellebuyck has become one of the best goalies in the game, the offense is still capable though some of the veterans have started slowing down, but the defense has had to be completely overhauled due to contracts ending and superstar Dustin Byfuglien arguing with team doctors about the status of his injured body.

They would be the team that would suffer the most from being in a Canadian division, as it would essentially mean adding the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montréal Canadiens to their usual division foes Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, instead of playing the lowly California teams more regularly.

What makes their odds look good:
Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine - four All-Stars up front, backed up by 23-year-old Nikolaj Ehlers, 22-year-old Jack Roslovic, long-time dependable middle-six wall Mathieu Perreault, and a nice mix of veterans and young guns ready to step up when needed - and the fact that not much gets in between the pipes.

Neal Pionk and Josh Morrissey might not be household names and Norris nominees, but I would take either of them on any team of mine as a top-pair guy; Luca Sbisa (29) has surprised in a comeback season, while Dmitri Kulikov (28 yeras old) and Nathan Beaulieu (26) look comfortable in shutdown roles, but there is room to get younger with more upside on them and Anthony Bitetto (29) and Tucker Poolman (26), and it probably starts with Ville Heinola (18) and Sami Niku (22). The team is one strong 25-or-younger D-man from making the playoffs in this strong division.

Question marks:
I jumped the gun, there, didn't I? The Leafs have one of the strongest top-six forward corps in the league, the Habs and Canucks are deep and balanced (with Vancouver boasting elite talent both up-front and on D), the Oilers have two of the three best forwards in the world and until the Flames post consecutive seasons where they underperform, last year cannot yet be deemed a trend downward, which makes for tough competition for Winnipeg. In a year where a condensed schedule might mean lots of back-to-back games and three-game series in a four-day span, goaltending depth is where the Jets might suffer.

This is going to be an exciting team to watch play and watch grow. In place since January 12th, 2014 - or for 516 regular-season games - Paul Marice is the NHL's second-longest tenured coach; eventualy, the Toronto media will start talking about message fatigue, which will spread like wildfire in the national sports landscape.

Sixth in the Canadian/North Division.

I almost featured Morrissey here, but I opted to go with a figure from the past instead, Igor Ulanov, who was a bruising presence for his entire career but also a well-rounded player who could be counted on for a handful of goals and a 20-point pace in his prime on the second pair with the Habs and Oilers.

He ended up appearing in 739 regular-season NHL games - with 27 goals, 135 assists, 162 points and 1151 penalty minutes - and 39 more in the playoffs (1-4-5, 84), which isn't bad for a tenth-round pick (203rd overall) of the Jets in 1991. As a matter of fact, that's more than anyone else chosen past the sixth round that year, with only Andreas Johansson (136th, 377 games), Janne Laukkanen (156th, 407), Dmitri Mironov (160th, 556), and Brian Savage (171st, 674) appearing in over 250. This is what he looked like in Jets blue/mauve, on card #70 from Upper Deck's 1994-95 Be A Player set:
This card allows he to enter him as #5 in my Jets Numbers Project.

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