The Winnipeg Jets' first two seasons in the NHL following the franchise's move from Atlanta went about as well as anyone could have hoped, everywhere but on the ice.
Fans have packed MTS Centre on a nightly basis since the move in May 2011, turning the NHL's smallest arena into one of the toughest stops for visiting teams. The love affair between the city and the Jets that began two years ago continues unabated; hundreds of fans swarmed the young players at rookie camp last month, looking for photos and autographs.
The only fly in the ointment has been that the Jets have come up short of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the two seasons in their new home.
Zach Bogosian will be part of the Winnipeg Jets for a long time after signing a seven-year, $36 million contract this summer. What the Jets need now is for the 23-year-old defenseman to play up to that contract.
The Jets made sure the player the franchise took with the third pick in the 2008 NHL Draft wouldn't be going anywhere when they avoided arbitration by signing him for the long term. They made the commitment although Bogosian's career has been more promise than performance thus far.
In 297 NHL games, Bogosian has 34 goals, 103 points and a minus-42 rating; not bad, but nothing earth-shaking. He's never scored more than 10 goals in a season and has reached the 30-point level once (in 2011-12). Bogosian has missed 11 or more games with injuries in four of his five NHL seasons and played 33 of 48 games in 2012-13, when he finished with five goals and 14 points.
The Winnipeg Jets' franchise hasn't made the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2007, when the team was based in Atlanta. The Jets have been competitive in their first two seasons since moving to Winnipeg, but the fans who have packed MTS Centre are moving past the stage when simply having the NHL back in town is enough; they want to see a playoff team.
Ownership has committed to keeping the core of this team together; 11 players are signed through the 2015-16 season after Zach Bogosian, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little signed long-term contract extensions this summer. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is hoping the players he's committed to are ready to help the team take the next step and end its six-year absence from the postseason.
Here are six questions the Jets will need to answer to make that happen:
The Winnipeg Jets have done their best to keep the core of their team together by handing out long-term contracts to players in their 20s. But there's still room on their roster for the kids.
In fact, the Jets are banking on a couple of recent first-round picks to give them the infusion of talent they'll need to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the second time in franchise history. Despite the loss of 2010 first-round pick Alexander Burmistrov, the Jets have been building depth in their system and could have two or three rookies in the lineup this season.
Here's a look at Winnipeg's top 10 prospects, according to NHL.com:
The 2013-14 edition of the Winnipeg Jets isn't going to look profoundly different from the 2012-13 team, but it is going to need to be more proficient at preventing goals.
Scoring isn't likely to be a problem, and the additions of Devin Setoguchi and Michael Frolik through trades, Matt Halischuk via free agency, and the potential graduation of Mark Scheifele to full-time NHL duty could make the Jets an even more formidable offensive club. Depth scoring was a major problem last season, but those four could end up among the top nine forwards.
There weren't as many alterations on the back end, with top prospect Jacob Trouba likely to be the only addition if he's ready for the NHL after one year at the University of Michigan. Better health for Zach Bogosian and Tobias Enstrom would help, and it is possible Frolik and Halischuk contribute as much at the defensive end as they do on offense.
It's the little things that show St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong the culture is changing around his team.
"This is probably the first year in the five years I've been in St. Louis that we're not leaving a space for an entry-level player," he told NHL.com. "We're no longer in that spot where we need to put 18-, 19- or 20-year-old players on our roster, to rejuvenate our fan base that we're in the growth process, or out of necessity because we don't have competent veteran players."
Depth and skill across the entire roster and throughout the organization have the Blues focused on continuing the progress that's been made the past two seasons.
There had to be a sense of déjà vu for the St. Louis Blues. They had a second straight strong season ended in the Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Los Angeles Kings.
How can the Blues get over the hump?
"I think one thing we feel as an organization is we are in that window of opportunity to have success both regular season and playoffs," general manager Doug Armstrong told NHL.com. "We don't want to let these seasons slip through our fingers without some long playoff runs."
Here are six questions the Blues will need to answer to make that possible:
When St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's best coach following the 2011-12 season, he remarked that one of the best parts of his job was getting to work with so many young players.
The St. Louis Blues' search for a center to complement a consistent set of wings may have been one of the NHL's worst kept secrets entering the offseason.
The idea was that it could help increase scoring for an offensively challenged team looking to take the next step in progression as well as give the team a bona fide No. 1 guy down the middle.
Signing veteran Derek Roy to a one-year, $4 million contract was done for two reasons: to re-establish the solid point production Roy proved while playing for the Buffalo Sabres, and, more important, to develop chemistry with power forward Chris Stewart.
Stewart, who recently signed a two-year, $8.3 million contract, has seen his share of ups and downs throughout his young career, first with the Colorado Avalanche and now with the Blues.
It would be hard to argue with Kane, considering the Kings and Blues do play a similar style, and Los Angeles has ended hockey season in St. Louis two years running. So the challenge for the Blues is pretty simple in 2013-14: catch up to the Kings (and the Blackhawks, who will be more direct competition in the Central Division).
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