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Jets know there's work ahead to get deep in playoffs

by Patrick Williams / NHL.com

WINNIPEG -- The Winnipeg Jets made significant progress in the 2014-15 regular season, but their quick exit from the Stanley Cup Playoffs provided a blunt reminder of how far they still have to go.

The Jets set a franchise record with 99 points, experienced a stretch drive to the playoffs and had several young players blossom, but the Anaheim Ducks swept them in their Western Conference First Round best-of-7 series. It was the first playoff appearance for the franchise since 2007, when it was known as the Atlanta Thrashers.

The most pressing issue for the Jets this offseason will be potential roster turnover. Forwards Michael Frolik, Drew Stafford, Lee Stempniak and Jiri Tlusty each can become an unrestricted free agent July 1.

Frolik has been a versatile jack-of-all-trades for the Jets, capable of playing on each of the top three lines and taking an important special-teams role.

"The organization was great for me, and I love it here," Frolik said Friday, when Jets players, coach Paul Maurice and general manager Tim Cheveldayoff met with the media. "We've got a great thing going, and I would like to be back, for sure."

However, Frolik, 27, left all possibilities open.

"It's my first time [as a free agent], and [when] you get this chance, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," Frolik said. "Obviously, I'm excited, but we'll see how it goes. Those things, like I said, it's for my agent, and I don't want to get into that. We'll see."

Stafford, who turns 30 in October, had nine goals and 10 assists in 26 games with the Jets and solidified the second line after arriving in a trade from the Buffalo Sabres on Feb. 11. Stempniak, another addition via trade, had six goals and four assists in 18 games with the Jets and strengthened Winnipeg's group of bottom-six forwards, as did Tlusty.

Is there a long-term fit for Stafford with the Jets?

"I'd say so," Stafford said. "Down the stretch, for us to make the playoffs, we had to win some pretty big games, and to be part of that was extremely exciting. It didn't end the way we wanted. It felt as though we could have a shot to have a pretty good run. But playing here in front of the fans, I mean, that playoff atmosphere was something I've never experienced before."

Stempniak, 32, also enjoyed his experience in Winnipeg.

"I would like to be back," he said. "I liked playing here. I like the city, the fans were awesome, it's a great organization, and the direction of the team is really promising."

Cheveldayoff needs to consider that captain Andrew Ladd and defenseman Dustin Byfuglien each can become an unrestricted free agent in 2016.

"[Byfuglien and Ladd are] a big part of our team, big part of our leadership group," Cheveldayoff said. "They've been part of this group since it moved here to Winnipeg, and I would hope and I would do my best to continue to have them as part of our team for many years to come."

But Cheveldayoff will need to decide whether he can sign each player before they reach free agency. If not, would trading them in advance be a possible move?

"I would [be open to signing a long-term contract in Winnipeg]," said Ladd, who disclosed Friday that he sustained a sports hernia injury in December and played through it. "It's something you've got to talk to the family about, but we enjoy it here. Hockey-wise, you see the excitement around the team and what has gone on here. I think that now more than ever you want to be a part of it."

The Jets' growth this season could help them to secure Ladd.

"[Growth is] a big part of it," Ladd said of the decision-making process. "It's funny. You think your career is just getting started, and then you look back, and it has been 10 years, and you really want to win again and be a part of an organization that is going to win sooner rather than later. That's an important part of making that decision."

Along with Ladd's injury, which may require surgery, Maurice said that Byfuglien and center Bryan Little each had dealt with recovering from dislocated ribs and that Mathieu Perreault had an assortment of injuries. Defenseman Jacob Trouba broke his hand in Game 2 against Anaheim and will have surgery.

After the Jets' injured players heal, they can join their teammates in preparing for next season. But Maurice warned that progress this season is no guarantee of future success.

"[People] will use that idea of taking the next step, and we'll assume that that means going farther in the playoffs," Maurice said. "Really what it means is playing that game again that gives you a chance to make the playoffs, becoming consistent with that game."

"[Becoming] re-established where we started will be priority No. 1."

But those are goals for next season. For now, Maurice, who has coached more than 1,200 NHL games, will take away fond memories of this season.

"I had more fun coaching this team than any other year that I've had," Maurice said.

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