The Winnipeg Jets' first two seasons in Manitoba following their move from Atlanta in May 2011 have gone almost perfectly. Fans have packed MTS Centre for every home game, turning the NHL's smallest venue into one of the toughest road stops in the League. Team sweaters and merchandise are de rigueur around town, and Jets 2.0 has enjoyed a level of support the original Jets (now the Phoenix Coyotes) would have envied.
"It's a unique city in terms of how they follow the hockey team, the passion they have for the game," captain Andrew Ladd told NHL.com. "It's a small arena but it's packed every night, and throughout the town there's a buzz about the team. It's something everyone can get excited about. As players you appreciate the support you get when you go around the town, and especially when you step on the ice and the crowd's going crazy."
The only glitch has come on the ice, where the Jets have yet to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs. In fact, the only postseason appearance in franchise history was six years ago, when the Atlanta Thrashers won the Southeast Division but were swept by the New York Rangers in the opening round. The Jets finished ninth in the Eastern Conference last season, four points out of a playoff berth after they lost three of their last four games.
Despite the lack of playoff appearances, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has opted to keep his core group together. Top-six forwards Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little each got a long-term contract this summer, as did top-four defenseman Zach Bogosian. In all, nine regulars from last season's team have at least two more seasons on their contract after 2013-14.
Then again, ownership must believe in what Cheveldayoff is doing; the GM received a contract extension in September that will keep him on the job through the 2017-18 season.
"It'll prove itself out over many years," chairman Mark Chipman said of the strategy of locking up what the franchise perceives as core players. "All I can tell you is that I'm very, very comfortable with the way that things have progressed since Kevin has been on board.
"We will have success, I'm convinced of that. We're moving in the right direction. We will have success."
If the Jets are going to attain that success, they'll have to do it in the Western Conference. Realignment has moved them from the Southeast Division of the Eastern Conference to the Central Division in the Western.
"It will be nice to have shorter flights and be able to get home in time to see the family and wake up in your own bed the next day," Ladd said of the switch. "That's definitely a positive. But it's a tough division with a lot of great teams. We're going to have to be on our toes every night and be ready to play a little more physical hockey. There are some big teams in that division; it should bring the best out of us."
The Jets finished 16th in the NHL last season averaging 2.62 goals per game. To improve on that, they're going to need a lot more production from a rebuilt second line.
The first unit, with Little (seven goals, 32 points) between Ladd (18 goals, 46 points) and Wheeler (19 goals, 41 points), was one of the NHL's most productive trios. But the lack of secondary scoring was costly; any team that could slow down or stop the first line usually won because the Jets didn't get enough offense from the rest of the forwards.
"I think depth and secondary scoring have been an issue the last couple of years," Ladd said. "We need a little more help throughout the lineup, and I think that will come with the youth we've got throughout the lineup."
Evander Kane (17 goals, 33 points) was the only non-first liner who finished with more than 18 points. Kane is part of what coach Claude Noel hopes will be an effective second unit, along with rookie center Mark Scheifele and offseason acquisition Devin Setoguchi, who came from the Minnesota Wild after spending most of his career with the San Jose Sharks.
"I'm hopeful that we can find some chemistry," Kane said of the Jets' attempts to surround him with the right pieces.
They looked good together in their first appearance as a unit, a 4-3 shootout loss to the Washington Capitals on Sept. 14. Kane scored twice and Setoguchi had an assist.
"It was good to get our first game under our belts and read and react on how we all play," Kane said. "I thought me and [Setoguchi] established some pretty good chemistry, and [Scheifele] did a good job of just kind of distributing the puck."
The Jets had the worst power play in the NHL last season (13.8 percent). The penalty-killing wasn't a whole lot better; Winnipeg was 24th at 79.7 percent. Each of those figures has to improve.
There's room for Scheifele because two veteran centers, Nik Antropov and Kyle Wellwood, were allowed to leave as a free agent. Winnipeg's 2010 first-round pick (No. 8) Alexander Burmistrov left to play at home in Russia. If Scheifele, the Jets' first-rounder in 2011 (No. 7), isn't up to the task, 34-year-old Olli Jokinen will get the chance to show he has something left after scoring seven goals and finishing with 14 points and a minus-19 rating.
The Jets' other major offseason acquisition was forward Michael Frolik from the Chicago Blackhawks; ideally, he'll be an effective third-liner. Jim Slater, Chris Thorburn and Matt Halischuk are among those who will battle for bottom-six ice time.
The Jets' first three can play with anyone. Dustin Byfuglien, one of the biggest players in the NHL at 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, has a rocket from the point. Tobias Enstrom makes up for a lack of size (5-10, 180) by being a slick puck-mover. Injuries caused him to miss more than half of last season and likely contributed to the Jets' woes on the power play.
Cheveldayoff made a seven-year commitment to Bogosian, who had five goals and 14 points in 33 games last season and has not scored more than 30 points since becoming an NHL regular in 2008-09. He earned an invitation to Canada Olympic orientation camp, so the skill to be an elite defender is there.
"We can't just sit back and be comfortable. I can't sit back and say, 'I've got a seven-year contract,' and then just mail it in," the 23-year-old said as training camp opened. "I need to show that I've earned it and do it every night. I'm confident the entire group will have the same mindset."
After finishing 24th defensively last season (2.94), the Jets need to be tougher in their own zone.
"We can make strides in that direction as far as being more physical," Bogosian told the Winnipeg Sun. "Also, not getting out of position to make that big hit, that's an important thing to remember."
Winnipeg would get a huge boost if 2012 first-round pick (No. 9) Jacob Trouba is ready. He turned pro after one excellent season at the University of Michigan that included a superb performance for the gold medal-winning United States at the World Junior Championship.
"I have to be myself and play how I play and show people how I can play," Trouba said. "I have to do what I can do and leave it up to other people to make decisions. I'm trying to learn from everyone and be the best-prepared I can."
The Jets made a long-term commitment last summer to Ondrej Pavelec, who's signed for the next four seasons.
Pavelec gave the Jets quantity, if not always quality, last season. He led the NHL with 44 games and ranked 10th in wins with 21. But his save percentage of .905 ranked 34th among qualifying goaltenders, and his 20 losses were the League's second-highest total. His goals-against average of 2.80 was 37th, and he allowed a League-high 119 goals.
Coach Claude Noel said improvement on defense has to be a team effort.
"I'm confident in our goaltending and I think our goaltending can help us get in the playoffs," Noel said. "We're going to have to play a good team game and our goalies are going to have to do their part.
"[Goaltending] is part of the solution. Your players have to check better, we have to do some things better from the previous two years to get into the playoffs. And goaltending is also going to have to pick up a little bit more."
The Jets re-signed backup Al Montoya, who saw action in seven games last season.
Author: John Kreiser | NHL.com Columnist