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:
1. Are Jacob Trouba and Mark Scheifele ready to contribute? -- The Jets kept the core of their team intact, but they have high hopes that the addition of first-round picks from 2012 (Trouba) and 2011 (Scheifele) will be enough to push them into the postseason.
Trouba, a defenseman, signed with Winnipeg after a spectacular season at the University of Michigan that included a gold medal with the United States at the 2013 IIHF World Junior Championship. Scheifele, a center, failed to stick with the Jets in each of the past two seasons. But he became an offensive force with Barrie of the Ontario Hockey League, scoring 39 goals and finishing with 79 points in 45 games last season before putting up 15 goals and 41 points in 21 playoff games.
"The real exciting thing for us is to see some of the younger guys, like Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba, try and push and make some difficult decisions for us going forward with the way the roster continues to evolve," Cheveldayoff said.
2. How good is the core? -- Cheveldayoff and ownership have obviously decided the Jets are still on the way up. They signed 23-year-old defenseman Bogosian, 25-year-old center Little and soon-to-be 27-year-old right wing Wheeler to long-term contracts this summer. Also signed through at least the 2015-16 season are forwards Evander Kane and Andrew Ladd along with goaltender Ondrej Pavelec and defensemen Tobias Enstrom, Dustin Byfuglien and Grant Clitsome. That's nine members of a non-playoff team who don't figure to be going anywhere.
The challenge is for that group to prove it can be the nucleus of a winning team. Bogosian, for one, is ready.
"We've had a lot of good players on our team for a couple years now," he said after signing his extension. "So it's going to be a good challenge for us. I think this group can do good things going forward."
3: Can the Jets keep the puck out of their net? -- Pavelec was the busiest goaltender in the NHL last season, starting 43 of Winnipeg's 48 games and appearing in a League-high 44. His 21-20-3 record wasn't awful, but his 2.80 goals-against was 37th among qualifying goaltenders and his .905 save percentage was 34th.
The Jets haven't been better than 24th in goals allowed in any of their past six seasons, and Pavelec has never had a GAA better than 2.73. With three seasons after this one remaining on his contract, Pavelec is not going anywhere. So he will have to step up his game if the Jets have any hopes of returning to the postseason. But the Jets will have to play a lot better in front of him.
4: Will Evander Kane fulfill his potential? -- Arguably the Jets forward most likely to emerge as an NHL star, Kane underwent surgery in June to remove pressure from a nerve in his left foot. He also finished last season with a wrist injury and has been sidelined by foot and knee problems.
Kane was back on the ice during development camp in July and said he expects to be ready to go when training camp starts in September. He has to be at full strength for the Jets to compete for a playoff berth. Of the Jets' core group, he's the one with the most upside, and they need him to become the All-Star power forward they hoped he would become when they drafted him at No. 4 in 2009.
5: Can Olli Jokinen bounce back? -- The Jets signed Jokinen to a two-year contract before last season, then saw him score seven goals and finish with 14 points and a minus-19 rating despite finishing fifth among Winnipeg forwards in ice time (17:07). At age 34, Jokinen is five years removed from the last of his three consecutive 30-goal seasons, but he had 23 goals and 61 points in 2011-12 for the Calgary Flames. The Jets need him to at least approach those numbers if they hope to make the playoffs.
6: What effect will realignment have? -- After playing their first two seasons in the Southeast Division and enduring a challenging travel schedule, the Jets are finally where they wanted to be all along: in the Western Conference. After realignment, Winnipeg is part of a Central Division that contains one team (the Colorado Avalanche) outside its time zone. The bad news is the Jets are moving from the NHL's weakest division in the old alignment (the Southeast) into one headed by the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Two playoff teams from last season, the St. Louis Blues and Minnesota Wild, also are in the Central Division, as are the improved Dallas Stars and Avalanche, and the rebounding Nashville Predators. Considering the competition, the Jets might need 95 points, a total reached once in franchise history, to make the postseason.
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