Jets look to make the playoffs in return to Winnipeg
While the newly-minted Winnipeg Jets haven't made a lot of personnel changes, this has been an incredibly busy summer in Manitoba.
The Jets are back in the NHL after a 15-year hiatus, and there has been plenty of work to be done in order for the organization to be ready since True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd. agreed to a deal to purchase the Atlanta Thrashers on May 31 with the plan of moving the club to Winnipeg.
"We've hit the ground running here. Everything is happening is so fast," coach Claude Noel said. "Normally [this] is the offseason but for us it felt like being in season with trying to get things started. You just try to use everyday to try and continue to build and be ready for this. [Fans] are pretty passionate up here. They've been out of the National League for 15 years, and I think it is going to be quite the frenzy up here."
Interesting fact: The MTS Centre, the Winnipeg Jets' new home, will have its first NHL season opener on Oct. 9 when the Jets host the Canadiens. However, the arena has hosted NHL talent before -- several preseason NHL games have been played at the MTS Centre, including a contest between the Blackhawks and Lightning last September.
True North hired Kevin Cheveldayoff to be the general manager, and he then brought in Noel to coach and filled out the rest of the staff both on the ice and off. Noel was an interim coach with the Columbus Blue Jackets and knows the market well from his time as coach of the Manitoba Moose in the American Hockey League.
There are plenty of people in the organization, from players to different staff departments, who have prior connections to the Moose and that could help ease the transition.
The Jets are expected to play in front of sold-out crowds all season at the MTS Centre, and while the building will be the League'e smallest, the intimate setting could also prove to be one of the NHL's most raucous atmospheres.
"I think it will be good for our players from a standpoint of knowing that you're going to have a lot of people in support of you and cheering for you," Noel said. "We hope it possibly leads to more home wins than in the past.
"There's an accountability factor here, where it is a full building and it is in Canada with the fans watching games here and having opinions and there is so much media attention. From an accountability standpoint, I think that is good."
While the anticipation for the return of the Jets is high, they will need to improve on the ice for the organization to contend for a playoff berth after missing out the past the four seasons.
JETS: 3 QUESTIONS FOR 2011-2012
1. What impact will the move have? Players who spent time in Atlanta will be confronted with a completely different atmosphere as the NHL returns to Winnipeg. Despite having the smallest building in the League, the Jets should sell out every night. If the players feed off the energy, it can only be a positive for the franchise.
2. Which team was the real Jets? After an impressive first half last season, the Thrashers tumbled down the East standings after the All-Star break, so the question remains if Dustin Byfuglien and company will compete in the East like they did for half of last season, or if they'll struggle to impact the standings.
3. Is this finally Zach Bogosian's year? After being taken 3rd overall in 2008, Zach Bogosian has been expected to fill the role of cornerstone defenseman for the franchise. In two seasons those expectations haven't been met yet, but Bogosian is only 21 years old. In his third NHL season it could be time for Bogosian to break out.
-- David Kalan
Winnipeg has a young roster, and the Jets did not lose any of the key members of the franchise. Anthony Stewart had 14 goals and 39 points for the Thrashers last season, but he was not extended a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent and signed a two-year deal with Carolina.
Eric Boulton was a popular player in Atlanta during his six seasons, but his production shouldn't be tough to replace, as he is known more for his work with his fists than in the offensive zone.
Radek Dvorak joined the club at the trade deadline, but signed as a free agent with Dallas. He had one assist in 13 games for the Thrashers.
The Jets also have to deal with the loss of Rick Rypien, who died earlier this month. Rypien signed with the organization this summer after spending the past six seasons with Vancouver. He was a local favorite, having played more than 100 games for the Moose.
The newcomer likely to have the biggest impact is right wing Eric Fehr, who was acquired from the Washington Capitals for a fourth-round draft pick. Fehr, who grew up in Manitoba and already had a home in Winnipeg, has been productive for the Capitals when healthy -- but that has been an issue for him and he had shoulder surgery in May.
"We're looking at some big things for Eric moving forward," Cheveldayoff said. "He's got to get through a shoulder injury, but we're going to put him in a situation where he can grow more and become an even more productive player."
Other additions who could be key role players include forward Tanner Glass and defensemen Randy Jones and Derek Meech. Glass appeared in 73 regular-season games for Vancouver last season, and earned a sweater 20 times during the Canucks' run to the Stanley Cup Final.
Jones had 13 points in 61 games for Tampa Bay last season and has averaged at least 17 minutes per game for the past four years. Meech appeared in 90 games for Detroit in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons, but spent all of last year in the AHL. The defense corps was already a strength for the Jets, but those two should improve the depth at the position.
UP-AND-COMING: 3 PLAYERS TO WATCH
Zach Bogosian, D -- It is never fair to put the burden of expectations on one player, but Bogosian's progress (or lack of it) this season could be the difference between Winnipeg having a successful first season back in the NHL or not. He has No. 1 defenseman, Norris Trophy candidate-level potential. First, he needs to sign a contract, and then he needs to be more consistent.
Bryan Little, C -- Little had 31 goals in 79 games in 2008-09, but he's only scored 37 in the other 197 contests of his four-year career. Can he approach 30 goals again, or can he improve on his career-high 30 assists from last season? The Jets don't need Little to be a star, but they do need him to provide quality secondary offensive production.
Ondrej Pavelec, G -- Is Pavelec really going to be an elite NHL goaltender? He made significant strides in that direction last season, mixing dynamite performances with some so-so ones en route to a 2.74 GAA and .914 save percentage. He's a restricted free agent after the season, so he needs to prove to his new employers that he's the right goalie for the franchise moving forward.
Fans in Winnipeg are not getting a team with expansion club-level talent -- just one that hasn't won a playoff game in its brief history. The previous management staff was able to build a solid core of young players, and in particular the defense corps is a strength.
Dustin Byfuglien made the move to defense after being traded to Atlanta last year and was an offensive star at the position. He and Tobias Enstrom both earned All-Star Game invites because of their offensive production.
Johnny Oduya and Ron Hainsey are solid veterans who can log plenty of minutes when needed. Mark Stuart arrived last season in a trade with Boston and signed a three-year contract extension, and he certainly adds some toughness to the group.
The wild card on defense is Zach Bogosian. Expectations remain very high, and should he develop into the player many scouts think he can be, the Jets could have one of the top defense corps in the League. Bogosian is a restricted free agent and remains without a contract however.
Ondrej Pavelec had a breakout season in 2010-11 for the Thrashers, and the goaltender, who turns 24 on Tuesday, could earn a big contract with more improvement this year.
The questions for Winnipeg are up front. There are a couple of young forwards with star potential in Evander Kane and Alexander Burmistrov. Captain Andrew Ladd has a long-term contract and proved he can produce more with an increased role last season after leaving Chicago.
Whether Bryan Little can be a consistent, top-line forward remains in question, and Nik Antropov had a down year last season. Fehr and Blake Wheeler could give the team a pair of 20-goal scorers on the wing, and if Little or Antropov improve the Jets could surprise on offense. There may not be any 40-goal scorers on the roster, but six or seven guys with at least 20 (including Byfuglien) is a possibility.
Other teams in the Eastern Conference that didn't make the postseason have also improved, or expect to be better this season so making that leap forward will not be easy. Still, there is a feeling that this group of players underachieved in the second half of last season after staying with Washington and Tampa Bay for the first half.
"I think realistically we have to look at making the playoffs," Noel said. "We have a lot of competition for those spots and it is so intense right from the opening games to get those points.
"You see sometimes like last year that [you have] 95 points and it doesn't get you in. For us, making the playoffs is going to be really important."