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.
Despite the lack of success on the ice, the Jets spent the summer locking up the core of their team, much of which came with the franchise from Atlanta. Andrew Ladd, Ondrej Pavelec, Evander Kane, Tobias Enstrom, Zach Bogosian, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little were members of the organization that arrived in Winnipeg; general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff systematically signed all of them to long-term contracts after securing Wheeler, Little and Bogosian this summer. In all, 11 players have contracts that run through at least 2015-16.
The Jets have been good enough to compete in the past two seasons, but they haven't been able to get into the playoffs. They're betting that the personnel they have will improve enough to get them to the next level.
"I think you first have to evaluate where your group is," Cheveldayoff said. "You have to show faith in them. You have to try and show some consistency from the ownership group and the organization that you have a plan in mind and stick to it so you're not changing directions midstream."
With that commitment and those contracts comes the need to succeed. The fans who have filled MTS Centre are no longer going to be content merely with having the NHL back in town; they want to see a winning team and Stanley Cup Playoff games.
The Jets were ninth in the Eastern Conference in 2012-13 and will make their long-awaited move to the Western Conference this season. The travel will be easier; no more multiple trips to Washington, Carolina and to the two teams in Florida. But the tradeoff is being in a division led by the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks.
For the Jets to make the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and the second in franchise history, they're going to have to do a better job keeping the puck out of their net. Not since 2006-07 has the Jets/Thrashers franchise finished better than 24th in goals allowed.
Pavelec, the unquestioned No. 1 goaltender, went 21-20-3 last season with a 2.80 goals-against average and a save percentage of .904; each was among the poorest figures for NHL starters. He played a League-high 44 of 48 games, as coach Claude Noel rode his No. 1 goalie hard; backup Al Montoya re-signed with the team after getting into seven games.
The big news on defense was the seven-year, $36 million contract given to Bogosian, the third player taken in the 2008 NHL Draft. The 23-year-old had five goals and 14 points in 33 games in 2012-13 and has never had more than 30 points in his five NHL seasons. The long-term deal was based at least as much on promise as on what he's accomplished thus far.
"I'm just real happy that Winnipeg believed in me and gave me another chance to prove myself," he said after the deal was announced. "I didn't exactly have the best start to my career in Atlanta and obviously moving up to Winnipeg gave me a new chance to play in a hockey market and play in a hockey town. That's where the term came in, it was definitely a no-brainer for me to want to stay there for a long time."
Improvement on the blue line could come from Jacob Trouba, the Jets' first-round pick (No. 9) in the 2012 NHL Draft. He left the University of Michigan after one season; with veteran Ron Hainsey allowed to leave as a free agent, the Jets would be delighted if the 19-year-old could step in.
"I think it's very realistic," Trouba said during development camp last month when asked about his prospects of making the team. "That's my goal. That's what I want -- to be in Winnipeg playing for the Jets -- so I'm going to do anything I can."
Also bidding for a job will be the No. 7 pick from 2011, Mark Scheifele, a center who has had brief stints with the Jets in each of the past two seasons before being returned to juniors.
"The real exciting thing for us is to see some of the younger guys, like Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba, can try and push and make some difficult decisions for us going forward with the way the roster continues to evolve," Cheveldayoff said.
The Jets were hurt last season by the absence of Enstrom, a playmaking defenseman who missed 26 games with injuries. Dustin Byfuglien (eight goals, 28 points) is one of the NHL's top offensive forces on the blue line.
Up front, Wheeler (19 goals, 41 points) and Little (seven goals, 32 points) received long-term contracts that avoided arbitration. They join Ladd (18 goals, team-high 46 points), the captain, and Kane (17 goals, 33 points), an emerging star, to give the Jets a talented offensive nucleus.
Cheveldayoff added to that group by bringing in Devin Setoguchi and Michael Frolik from the Minnesota Wild and Blackhawks, respectively. Those additions should make up for the loss of 2010 first-round pick (No. 8) Alexander Burmistrov, who opted to return home to Russia rather than re-sign with the Jets as a restricted free agent.
But is that enough to get the Jets into the playoffs? After making huge commitments to Little, Wheeler and Bogosian in an effort to keep the core together -- and making relatively few changes to a team that has missed the playoffs for six consecutive seasons -- Cheveldayoff is offering no guarantees.
"How close are we? I don't know," he said. "Obviously you have to play the game on the ice. I do know something: Ownership has shown a commitment to the city and ownership has shown they're willing to invest in the long-term future of this franchise. It has to start somewhere, and this is a good starting point."
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