Midway through the 2010-11 season, the Atlanta Thrashers looked like they might be a playoff team for only the 2nd time in their history. New acquisitions Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd were playing lights-out, goaltender Ondrej Pavelec looked excellent, and coach Craig Ramsay was getting some genuine Jack Adams buzz.
Then everything fell apart. Byfuglien and Pavelec slumped, Ramsay struggled to make adjustments, and the team won only 14 of its remaining 41 games, finishing well outside the postseason cutoff. Though the collapse should have been expected considering the thinness of the roster (Dustin Byfuglien excluded), it was disappointing for fans nonetheless.
Unfortunately, those fans were already few and far between, and another losing season was the last straw for a franchise that was already teetering on the edge.
Midway through the summer, it was announced that the Thrashers had been sold to True North Sports and Entertainment, and that the NHL would be returning to Winnipeg after 15 years away. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that this team would be named the Jets.
Needless to say, there is much excitement among those that reside in Southern Manitoba.
Will it wear off when they realize that the Jets' roster bears an uncanny resemblance to last year's Atlanta Thrashers?
The Thrasher-Jets made no major acquisitions in their first summer in Winnipeg, possibly because everybody was too busy buying homes and attending Folklorama.
Still, there was a little action. The team chose not to qualify restricted free agent Anthony Stewart, the right winger with whom I'm currently feuding. He was instead signed by the Carolina Hurricanes, continuing his bizarre dream of playing his entire career in the Southeast Division.
The Jets also lost Eric Boulton and Radek Dvorak, the latter of whom was acquired at the trade deadline and put up a one measly point in 13 games. Basically, when I said "lost", I meant "wisely opted not to retain."
And, speaking of losses, I'd be remiss not to mention the late Rick Rypien, who was already a fan favorite in Winnipeg because of the 100 games he played with the Manitoba Moose. He signed with the Jets on the second day of free agency, only to reportedly succumb to his depression and take his own life a month-and-a-half later. That sucks.
The Jets also added future fan favorites and former Vancouver Canucks' third-liners Tanner Glass and Kyle Wellwood. Both are defensively sound forwards that, while not known to put up a lot of goals, don't tend to surrender them either. But that's not why Jets fans will love them. It's actually because Glass is one of the awesomest guys you'll ever meet, and Wellwood is one of the awkwardest.
And finally, the Jets added defenseman Randy Jones, who played 61 games last season with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Derek Meech, who has been in the Detroit Red Wings' organization since 2002. Let's all shrug collectively.
At forward, the Jets will again be led by captain Andrew Ladd, who put up a career-high 59 points in his first season with the organization. The Jets will need more out of Ladd this season if they hope to contend, especially since this was also a team-high, and center Bryan Little was the second-highest scoring forward, with only 48 points.
In other words, the Jets will struggle to score. Winnipeg has a decent crop of forwards, including Evander "Cooke-puncher" Kane, Alexander Burmistrov, and first-round pick Mark Scheifele, who looks like he might already be ready for the NHL. But these guys are still young, and their output this year is a question mark.
Speaking of question marks, the Jets appear to be collecting power forwards on the bubble, with Blake Wheeler, Nik Antropov and Eric Fehr all hovering around the top six. Each one has appealing size and strength, but they're also all frustratingly slow and prone to soft play. If coach Claude Noel could get them all going, the Jets might be a little tougher to handle.
As it stands, this isn't exactly a group that strikes fear into opposing defenses.
Speaking of defenses, the Jets' defense will be led, as it was last season, by the pairing of Tobias Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien. Unless Zach Bogosian emerges as the cornerstone blueliner the Jets are hoping he'll become, it will be up to these two to lead this team from the back end.
Or maybe the team could expect more from Ron Hainsey, who is in the third year of a five-year, $22.5 million deal. Is it possible to fire Don Waddell again for that contract?
In goal, Ondrej Pavelec will again be the Jets' No. 1 this season and, considering how thin the roster is in front of him, some big nights between the pipes could be extremely helpful. Pavelec is coming off his best season statistically, after putting up career-highs in GAA (2.73) and save percentage (.914). He'll need to do better than that for this team to contend.
"Conan The Barbarian (2011)." A franchise that peaked in the 1980s and officially ended in the mid-1990s gets an unexpected reboot, although the new incarnation has no connection whatsoever to the old franchise apart from the name. Plus, it isn't very good. Also, the stars of the original (Teemu, Arnold), while old, remain active and influential in the state of California.
The Jets didn't go far in their search for a bench boss, hiring former Manitoba Moose coach Claude Noel, in large part, one assumes, because the MTS Centre operations staff didn't want to order new nameplates.
Further proof that nobody wanted to order a new nameplate? Moose GM Craig Heisinger returns as an Assistant General Manager. He will be answering to brand-new, first-time GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, formerly an assistant GM and Stanley Cup winner with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Experience may be a concern for the tandem of Cheveldayoff and Noel, but the Jets are sold out well into the next millennium, so they have plenty of time to sink before they swim.
If this isn't Zach Bogosian, the Jets have a problem. After being drafted 3rd overall in 2008, making the roster out of his first training camp, and putting up 9 goals and 10 assists in 47 games, Bogosian has only regressed. In his first full season in 2009-10, his stats were nearly identical (10 goals, 13 assists), which was a real letdown considering he played 34 games more. Then, last season, Bogosian stepped furhter back, notching only 5 goals in 71 games.
Needless to say, with some uncertainty over his trajectory, Bogosian's RFA negotiations lasted well into the summer before he finally agreed to a two-year, $5 million deal. Now it's up to him to prove he's worth more even that. He's more than capable of a breakout season, and the Jets need him to have it.
The Jets are hoping that the Eric Fehr they've acquired has more in common with the guy that put up 21 goals and 39 points for the Washington Capitals in 2009-10 than the guy from last season, who struggled with shoulder problems and only scored 10 goals. The Capitals were willing to part with Fehr for only a fourth-round pick, and while some of this had to do with cap concerns, it was also a sign that they had given up on him.
Winnipeg's forward corps isn't nearly as deep as Washington's, which means Fehr will see his opportunities and his icetime increased. On the flipside, this means expectations will increase too, and if Fehr can't return to form, he could be the first goat of the resurrected Winnipeg franchise.
The real question for this season is whether the Jets' marketing department can ever return to the level of excellence they reached in the 1990s.
The fans. It won't be long before puckheads are able to back up the assertion of Canadian Football League fans' that Winnipeggers are completely insane (and capable of making the best beer cup snake in sports). They will be loud and supportive all season long, even if the team is terrible. That's a major upgrade on absent, as the former Atlanta Thrashers are used to, and it's possible the team could ride this wave of support to a winning record.
This is a prodigal son scenario: regardless of where this team has been or who they are now, they're back, and the only thing to do is greet them with hugs and kisses aplenty. It should be a fun year in Winnipeg. The Jets won't be good and they won't make the playoffs, but I suspect that nobody in Winnipeg will care all that much.
- Atlanta Thrashers
- Dustin Byfuglien