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Noel: Improved depth improves Jets' playoff hopes

by Patrick Williams /

WINNIPEG -- The Winnipeg Jets reported to MTS Centre on Wednesday for physicals, but the real work of answering a long list of questions will begin when they take the ice Thursday to prepare for their first season in the Western Conference.

While the Jets gave coach Claude Noel a one-year contract extension this summer, there will be considerable pressure on him, in his third season, to take the organization into the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2007, when the franchise was located in Atlanta. Another postseason miss could leave Noel’s future behind the Winnipeg bench in jeopardy.

"I'm certainly ready to go," Noel told reporters in his season-opening address. "I'm anticipating some very good things this year."

The pressure will extend beyond Noel. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff re-signed Zach Bogosian, Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler and Grant Clitsome to long-term contracts. The off-ice adjustments that the organization's 2011 relocation to Winnipeg created now have subsided, and Cheveldayoff either has acquired or re-signed every player on the roster other than defenseman Dustin Byfuglien.

Among the changes are the departures of forwards Nik Antropov, Alex Burmistrov and Antti Miettinen, along with defenseman Ron Hainsey. But the additions of forwards Devin Setoguchi and Michael Frolik, whom the Jets acquired in trades this summer, plus an influx of young prospects, have Noel believing that the club's depth and its internal competition will improve this season.

"From a management standpoint," Noel said, "I think we have made some investments in some of the players and signed them to long-term deals, and we've certainly put our trust in the core group of players."

"I think that we've added some scoring. We've added a guy in Frolik who has won a Stanley Cup [with the Chicago Blackhawks last season] and is a good two-way player."

Inconsistency plagued the Jets last season and derailed their playoff bid. A lack of depth compounded injuries to key players and often left Noel struggling to fill line-up holes. Noel also will be stressing the need for a far stronger commitment to two-way play, and will use the club's depth to enforce that edict.

"For me the motor that drives the team is the competition that gets created through the players," Noel said. "I think that it's something as a coach that you have to drive. You have to do that through accountability."

Noel said he is aiming to use roster depth to re-shape the team's game and believes that his club's speed and size will match up well against Western Conference foes like the Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues.

"The focus for me with some of the additions we've made," he said. "is how are we going to make this team play the way we want to play to elevate us to the point where we now become a playoff team? That's really what I'm primarily focused on.

"We've got to do a better job of [playing] an overall checking game. I think that we can really get after teams, and that's what we're going to be looking to do."

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