NHL hockey returned to Winnipeg last season for the first time since 1995. It was a season of just being happy the Jets were back despite the 11th place finish in the Eastern Conference. Despite having the smallest capacity arena in the league, the MTS Centre was consistently the loudest arena night in and night out. The enthusiastic fan support helped the Jets to a 23-13-5 home record. Sadly for Winnipeg they couldn't play more than 41 regular season games at home because they suffered on the road with a 14-22-5 record. The Jets finished eight points out of a playoff spot and with just a little bit more success on the road they would have potentially found themselves playing into mid-April.
So on to Year 2. The honeymoon period will begin to wear off and with a full season back in operation all eyes will be toward a return to the playoffs.
Did the Jets do enough over the summer to secure a top-8 spot in the East?
"11th place? Who cares? We got hockey back!"
The biggest move made by GM Kevin Cheveldayoff in the off-season was signing Olli Jokinen to a 2-year, $9 million deal. The 33-year old pivot had his best season since 2007-08 scoring 23 times and chipping in 61 points. His production will help out an 11th ranked offense (2.7 goals per game) from last season. Joining him will be Alexei Ponikarovsky on a 1-year, $1.8 million deal. He'll provide production from down the lineup and may play with old friend Nik Antropov on a line. Ponikarovsky is also in that phase of his career where his offensive production is declining, but the defensive aspects of his game are becoming his best asset.
With Chris Mason heading back to Nashville, the Jets brought in Al Montoya to serve as Ondrej Pavelec's backup. Unfortunately, with Pavelec getting majority of the work load, we'll miss out on seeing Montoya's sweet new mask on a regular basis.
Along with Mason, leaving The Peg were Tanner Glass (Pittsburgh), Mark Flood (Lokomotiv, KHL) and Tim Stapleton (Dinamo Minsk, KHL). Eric Fehr and Randy Jones remain unsigned on the UFA market.
At forward… Career years by Blake Wheeler (17 goals, 64 points) and Evander Kane (30 goals, 57 points) led the Jets offensively. Just 21 years old, Kane continued his rise as a star player in the NHL with a productive junior season. And just hours before the lockout began, he put to rest rumors of his unhappiness in Winnipeg by signing a 6-year, $31.5 million extension.
Jokinen's addition will add to the upfront production expected by captain Andrew Ladd (28 goals, 50 points), Kyle Wellwood (47 points) and Bryan Little (24 goals). He'll also play a big role on last season's 12th-ranked power play (17.9 per cent).
Down the lineup the production will thin out, but defensively the bottom six will need to be better, especially among the forwards who were part of a penalty kill unit that ranked 24th last season (80.1 per cent).
Alex Burmistrov is still developing, but showed glimpses of two-way skill. Patrice Cormier could find a role with the team as the season moves on. Mark Scheifele and Ivan Telegin will be served well continuing their development as future spots in the Jets lineup await.
On defense … Dustin Byfuglien missed 16 games last season, yet still finished tied for second among all NHL defensemen in scoring with 53 points. Missing games was a theme on the Winnipeg blueline. Only Mark Stuart (80) was on the ice for more than 66 games. And should the season get started relatively soon, the defense corps will be without Zach Bogosian who underwent wrist surgery in August and will miss 4-6 months.
No changes were made to a defense that finished 26th in goals against (2.95 per game). There'll be plenty of offense provided by Byfuglien, Tobi Enstrom (33 points) and Bogosian when he returns, but improvements will be needed to limit the number of times Pavelec is fishing pucks from his net.
In goal … Now that Pavelec has inked a 5-year, $19.5 million contract, the scrutiny will only increase. He had his heaviest workload last season playing 68 games, but saw his save-percentage (.906) and goals against average (2.91) take dips from 2010-11. His agent spoke a big game after he signed the extension. Pavelec will need to be better as the Jets hope to get better.
Come on down to Winnipeg. They'll take care of you. Tell 'em you know Sugar Free Leonard!
It wasn't the easiest of beginnings for Cheveldayoff and head coach Claude Noel. With such a short summer in 2011 after the team's move from Atlanta and all the changes in the front office, they made the most out of a tough situation. Noel will be fine continuing to shape the Winnipeg offense, but it'll be defensively where he'll need to do the most work. Cheveldayoff didn't make major improvements to a team that didn't make the playoffs. Instead, he stuck with short-term options in Jokinen and Ponikarovsky, while investing in the future with Kane, Enstrom and Pavelec.
Kane, Jokinen, Ladd, Wheeler, Byfuglien. They're the offensive leaders of the club, but Pavelec will determine if the Jets earn a postseason berth. As Wysh noted after Pavelec signed his extension, is he a "good goalie on a bad team or an average goalie given too much credit for being decent on a bad team — or, perish the thought, a good goalie." We're about to find out.
Alex Burmistrov didn't wow anyone last season; he did his job silently and solidly. With a little more ice time and a little more responsibility, he could be a real unsung hero on this team.
Pavelec's getting paid as top No. 1 goaltender and there will be times during the season when he'll need to steal a game for the Jets. Wore down in March, so giving Montoya a few extra games could help keep Pavelec fresh for a playoff push.
"Home team fans.
"We expect them to be polite. Good hosts. Welcoming ambassadors.
"We don't expect them to chant 'Crosby's Better':
"Or chant 'ROOOOOOLLIE'
"Or chant 'silver medal':
"Winnipeg Jets fans. They make opposing players haz a sad."
"Paid for by the Other 29 Teams."
Is it as simple as winning a few more games away from MTS Centre? Well, no. The Jets will need to be much better defensively and on the penalty kill if they're to go back to the playoffs for the first time since 2007. But are the additions of Jokinen and Ponikarovsky enough to get there? If the Southeast Division remains as tight as it was last season, then that will benefit the Jets' chances of being in the playoff hunt until the end. Otherwise, unless Cheveldayoff pulls the trigger on a move that will upgrade an area of weakness, they'll once again remain just on the outside looking in.
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