When it was announced the Jets would fly once again, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman made it clear the entire city needed to support the team for the long term.
The franchise’s return to Manitoba has created one of the most rabid fan bases in hockey.
Unfortunately, the reincarnated Atlanta Thrashers have yet to pay back their puck-staved faithful with a playoff spot. The team’s first season back – and to a large extent a lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign – saw the Jets enjoy a honeymoon period as the plucky squad fought to establish itself as a contender.
Now back in the Western Conference and coming off a failed late season playoff push, there’s a feeling the shine surrounding the organization has worn off and pressure is now firmly on the the Jets to bring post-season hockey back to the ‘Peg for the first time since 1996.
Here’s a preview of what to expect this year:
Like much of their squad, the Jets are a young bunch up front with some emerging stars. Andrew Ladd is the unquestioned leader of the group. The Maple Ridge, B.C. native not only serves as the Winnipeg captain but performed at a near point-per-game level last season (18 goals, 28 assists) .
Ladd will be joined by veteran newcomers Michael Frolik – a 2013 Stanley Cup champ with the Blackhawks – and Devin Setoguchi, both of whom were acquired at the 2012 draft, but plenty will hinge on youngsters .
After putting up 33 points in 48 games last season, the much-maligned Evander Kane and his six year, $31 million contract ready for prime time? Can OHL star Mark Scheifele finally make the jump to “The Show”? Good news for Jets backers is the core – Kane, Ladd, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little – are all locked up long term. One forward the club hoped would become part of that group, Russian Alex Burmistrov, signed a KHL contract in the off-season.
Eight blueliners are signed for the upcoming year, highlighted by emerging threat Tobias Enstrom (15 points in 22 games during 2012-13), big Dustin Byfuglien (28 points) and cornerstone Zach Bogosian (14 points).
Grant Clitsome and Mark Stuart are all but assured to round out the Top 5.
It remains to be seen whether US National Development Team and University of Michigan product Jacob Trouba – the club’s ninth overall selection in the 2012 draft, will occupy a one of the Jets final roster spots. Trouba had a strong showing at the Canucks Young Stars (rookie) tournament in Penticton, B.C. this fall, but standing out amongst junior and AHL stars doesn’t necessarily guarantee NHL success.
Steady as she goes in the crease. Ondrej Pavelec had almost identical numbers in the past two years (.906 SV%, 2.91 GAA in 2011-12, .905, 2.80 in 2012-13). For his efforts, Winnipeg general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff signed the 26-year-old Czech to a five year, $19.5 million pact prior to last year. The team was 25th in the NHL in goals against last season, so the pressure will remain on Pavelec to keep the Jets in games. Al Montoya returns for his second season in a back up role, and is expected to provide solid numbers in limited action.