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Jets ready to take off for NHL return

by Staff Writer / Winnipeg Jets
One of the most hectic offseasons in recent NHL history came to a close Sept. 17 when the Winnipeg Jets took the ice to begin training camp.

The Jets relocated from Atlanta this summer in a move that returned the NHL to the Manitoba capital after a 15-year absence. The city shut down May 31 when NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman arrived in Winnipeg on a rainy morning to announce that Winnipeg once again would host the world's premier hockey league.

The club sold 13,000 season tickets just four days after Bettman's announcement, and the pace hasn't let up since. The relocation kick-started a barrage of on- and off-ice changes to a young roster as the organization tries to right itself after a disappointing 2010-11 season.


A. ladd b. little b. wheeler
e. kane n. antropov e. fehr*
k. wellwood a. burmistrov s. machacek
t. glass j. slater c. thorburn
t. stapleton
t. enstrom d. byfuglien
r. hainsey z. bogosian
j. oduya m. stuart
ones to watch
f mark scheifele
f patrice cormier
f carl klingberg
Last season's team owned a 20-15-6 mark on New Year's Eve but won just 14 of their final 41 games and missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 11th time in 12 seasons.

Under new management, the process began in earnest in overhaul the club. New general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff was hired from the Chicago Blackhawks and brings a winning pedigree. Cheveldayoff will team with new assistant general manager Craig Heisinger to retool the farm system, an issue that long has plagued the organization.

Stepping behind the bench will be Claude Noel, who spent a brief stint as interim coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets during the 2009-10 season. Noel brings a reputation as a winner at the minor-league level and his experience in the AHL has made him one of the game's best teachers, a key asset with a club that will rely heavily on young talent. As a coach in the Nashville Predators' organization, Noel helped develop that club's impressive group of talented prospects.

Expect the Jets to be a team that works hard. The youth, Noel's dedicated prodding and Winnipeg's hockey-crazy environment should see to that.

"You're going to earn everything you get here," Noel said. "That's just the way it is. We're going on merit. They already know that."

The club, which struggled on home ice in Atlanta last season, should benefit from playing in the League's smallest building before a group of wildly enthusiastic fans basking in the return of the NHL to the city. Through two preseason games, the cozy MTS Centre has already begun to build a reputation as one of the NHL’s more intimidating buildings.

"When you come off the national anthems and everyone is chanting, 'Go Jets Go,' it's surreal," right wing Blake Wheeler said. "You almost feel like you're in Montreal, but it's a smaller building, so it's even louder than that. It's going to be an unbelievable atmosphere to play in every game."

The biggest question surrounding Winnipeg's group is whether its offensive horses can take their games a step forward. Team captain Andrew Ladd made that jump in posting a career-high 29 goals last season to lead the club. If Ladd's teammates can make similar progress or regain their previous form, the Jets should avoid offensive issues.

Can 20-year-old left wing Evander Kane graduate from a 19-goal scorer to a power forward capable of posting 25 or 30 goals? After a 31-goal rookie season in 2008-09, center Bryan Little has managed a combined 31 goals in the past two seasons. Can Little regain his rookie form and provide the Jets with first-line minutes as a playmaking center? Wheeler has stalled at 18 goals over the past two seasons after scoring 21 as a rookie with the Boston Bruins in 2008-09. Playing with Ladd and Little for a full season, can Wheeler emerge into a power forward able to add to that goal total?


IN: Eric Fehr, RW (trade, Capitals); Mark Flood, D (free agent, Islanders); Aaron Gagnon, C (free agent, Stars); Tanner Glass, LW (free agent, Canucks); Randy Jones, D (free agent, Lightning); Kendal McArdle, LW (trade, Panthers); Derek Meech, D (free agent, Red Wings); Kyle Wellwood, C (free agent, Sharks)

OUT: Eric Boulton, LW (free agent, Devils); Radek Dvorak, RW (free agent, Stars); Angelo Esposito, C (trade, Panthers); Freddy Meyer, D (free agent, MoDo, Sweden); Danick Paquette, RW (trade, Capitals); Rob Schremp, C (free agent, MoDo, Sweden); Anthony Stewart, RW (free agent, Hurricanes)
Center Alexander Burmistrov, the club's first-round selection in the 2010 Entry Draft, scored six goals as a rookie. Still only 19 years old, the Jets will need Burmistrov to progress in his second season and avoid the setbacks that have plagued some of the team's other young forwards in recent seasons. Nik Antropov slid to 16 goals last season.

Mark Scheifele, taken seventh in the 2011 draft, has dominated headlines during the preseason. A rangy center with uncanny hockey sense for such a young player, Scheifele debuted before the home fans with a four-point effort. A debate continues as to whether Scheifele would best be served by remaining with the Jets. If Scheifele were to return to the Ontario Hockey League's Barrie Colts, he would do so under the guidance of Winnipeg Jets legend Dale Hawerchuk, his coach with the Colts.

The Jets also await the return of provincial son Eric Fehr, an offseason acquisition from the Washington Capitals. Fehr underwent shoulder surgery this summer and is expected to miss at least the first month of the regular season.

The Jets' bottom-six forwards are a competent, earnest group. Tanner Glass and Chris Thorburn provide a physical presence, and center Jim Slater is an organizational mainstay who can anchor the fourth line.

"Scoring is a topic that needs to be coached throughout the group," Noel said. "Everybody needs to take responsibility. Checkers need to chip in. Yes, they're not going to get 30 (goals), but they might get eight."

Youngster Patrice Cormier offers Noel a sturdy option on the wing or at center. Versatility is critical in Noel's world.

"It's funny," Noel said. "When you get to this level, anyone can play any position you want. In other words, they want to stay."

For all the Jets' youth, they boast an experienced and talented blue line that offers a little bit of everything. Assistant coach Charlie Huddy joined the Winnipeg organization over the summer from the Dallas Stars and will provide a new voice to the group.

"We've got some NHL experience through the first eight or nine guys. That's a lot of guys with some experience," said Ron Hainsey, the club's oldest defenseman at age 30.

The Jets are counting on Hainsey to provide a steady and calming influence -- he has 488 NHL games to his credit. Given the club's potential scoring issues among the forwards, Noel will count on his back line to generate some of the club's offense.

Tobias Enstrom posted 51 points last season and offers the Jets one of the League's best puck-moving defenders. Dustin Byfuglien's booming shot helped him score 20 goals last season, tops among all NHL defensemen.

Mark Stuart and Zach Bogosian are expected to form a pairing. Stuart's very physical and defensively conscientious game allows Bogosian, a physical defender in his own right, to play with a bit more risk in his game.

The blue-line group also proved quite durable last season. Hainsey and Johnny Oduya dressed for all 82 games, while Byfuglien missed only one.
Winnipeg also boasts substantial organizational depth defensively to supplement the top-six group in the event of injury. Randy Jones signed with the Jets this summer after a season with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Former Detroit farmhand Derek Meech provides an offensive option, Brett Festerling offers poise and strong leadership at the AHL level, and prospect Paul Postma's booming shot has attracted attention during the preseason. All three have the potential to slot nicely into the No. 7 or No. 8 slots. Any of them, plus the steady Mark Flood, will provide the Jets with strong recall options during the regular season if they start the season in the AHL.

Goaltending further solidifies Winnipeg's defensive strength. Ondrej Pavelec begins his second full NHL season as the team's undisputed starter, and does so coming off a breakout season. Pavelec, 24, established himself as a workhorse, playing 58 games and posting a 2.73 goals-against average and .914 save percentage. He built on that by backstopping the Czech Republic to a bronze medal at the IIHF World Championship.

Backing up Pavelec will be 35-year-old Chris Mason, who brings with him a reputation as a team-first reserve who can mentor Pavelec and provide the Jets with capable minutes whenever needed.

Author: Patrick Williams | Correspondent

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