WINNIPEG -- The equipment bags sat scattered across MTS Centre's home dressing room as the Winnipeg Jets said their early-April goodbyes.
The early departures have become a rite of April for the club. Sunday cemented that ritual further after the Jets finished their first season in Winnipeg anchored in 11th place in the Eastern Conference with a 37-35-10 record.
New York Rangers -- there is significant work to be done to move the club up from the League's bottom-third and make it a viable Playoff contender on a yearly basis.
"It's not acceptable to be sitting here doing this at this time of the year," Jets captain and two-time Stanley Cup winner Andrew Ladd said.
Last summer brought tremendous offseason upheaval as the organization prepared for its relocation to Winnipeg, a new general manager, and a new coaching staff led by Claude Noel. Several Jets admitted that adjusting to Winnipeg’s hockey-crazed environment required a major shift in mindset. This summer will not feature the same degree of off-ice activity, but the Winnipeg roster figures to get a makeover all the same now that general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and his management team will have their first full summer to reshape and remake. Winnipeg battled consistency issues all season and finished 27th in the NHL in road wins and 24th on the penalty kill, two major areas of concern that ultimately doomed the Jets’ season.
"We don't want to be standing here in April next year going down this same path at this time of year," Noel said in his season-ending press conference. "Things have to change.
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"We have to be better. Our attitude has to be better. We have to walk and expect to be in the playoffs. Our conduct, our existence, just has to be better. That's where it starts. I think we're getting there. That's what I want them to think about over the summer. There is something to be said for walking like a champion."
Cheveldayoff has several decisions to make with a club with 11 players who need contracts for next season, including workhorse goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, who had a breakout season as a 24-year-old and will be a restricted free-agent on July 1. Pavelec held a team prone to defensive misadventures in several games, even though the Jets finished 26th in goals-against this season.
As well, left wing Evander Kane will also be a restricted free-agent after leading the Jets with a career-high 30 goals this season. Kyle Wellwood tied a career-high with 18 goals after arriving in Winnipeg as an unheralded late-summer signing, but he is not under contract for the 2012-13 season.
Veteran back-up goaltender Chris Mason will be free to sample free-agency this summer. Mason admitted that he will have to decide between returning to a stable situation in Winnipeg, albeit one that offers little opportunity for significant playing time, or whether he can find another NHL crease that will provide a heavier workload.
Checking center Jim Slater finished with a career-best 13 goals and will be an unrestricted free-agent as will his left wing, scrappy fan favorite Tanner Glass. The Jets acquired winger Eric Fehr to be a key piece of their top-six forwards, but the Manitoba product struggled to recover from offseason shoulder surgery and finished with only two goals. An injury in mid-March ended Fehr’s season, and his free-agent status this summer makes him an unlikely candidate to return to the Jets.
Ladd believes that the Jets need some additional forward depth, but he likes the pieces that the club has assembled.
"I think we're heading in the right direction," Ladd said. "We have a lot of good pieces. It's just trying to find how to put the pieces together to work well. I think it's something that is going to take some time. It's everyone in this room that is going to have to buy into it and make it work."
Several Jets expressed a desire to remain with the organization and in a city that greeted the NHL's return with 41 home sellouts in a building that developed one of the best reputations in the League very quickly.
"We all feel really lucky to be a part of this organization, a part of this fan base, and it gives us even more motivation to put this thing over the hump next year," said leading scorer Blake Wheeler, another Jet who had a career season in posting 47 assists and 64 points.
But the Jets will not hear only cheers next season, as Noel indicated to his players during individual end-of-season meetings that a higher standard will be in place next season. Noel vowed that he will not show his club the same level of patience that he afforded it this season. The club's off-ice transition to a hockey-mad market and the adjustment that it required convinced Noel to be patient with his young club.
"I'll be less patient next year," Noel said. "I don't mean that disrespectfully, but I'm going to be different. They'll know that. I've already told them that, so they'll see it. We have to expect more from ourselves. The bar has to go up, and we have to raise it."