An 84 point season, fourth place finish in the Southeast Division and eleventh place final standing in the Eastern Conference is not a memorable season in most instances.
But the 2011-12 season for the Winnipeg Jets was not most instances. For Winnipeg, this season meant the return of professional hockey after a 15 year absence. It meant a second chance to prove their standing as one of the most passionate hockey markets in the world. And it meant supporting a young team that, for the first time in a long time, Manitobans could call their own, regardless of where the Jets sat in the standings.
“You knew the fans were going to be crazy, but you didn’t know they were going to take it to a whole new level,” Jets forward Evander Kane said in a season ending interview with Jets TV. “It was great to see the passion and support they had when we came to the rink every home game to play. It made hockey a lot more fun.”
The rocous home crowd that filled the MTS Centre helped the Jets to a 23-13-5 home record, giving Winnipeg one of the best home ice advantages in the league. Home wins were especially important for the Jets. Replacing the Atlanta Thrashers in the Southeast Division, the Jets were forced to endure a tough travel schedule, which contributed to a 14-22-5 record away from Winnipeg, the second worst road record in the Eastern Conference.
Despite missing the playoffs, the season was not without promise. The Jets got career highs in points from both Kane and Blake Wheeler, two of the team’s rising stars on offense and top scorers this season.
“I’m happy with the step I took in the right direction,” Wheeler told Jets TV. “I believe there’s more there. I’m looking to build on it next year.”
The Jets will also send three players to the 2012 IIHF World Championship. Kane will join his captain Andrew Ladd in representing Team Canada, while forward Jim Slater will represent the United States.
In addition to promising play up front, goaltender Ondrej Pavelec delivered another solid season between the pipes, flashing the ability to be an elite NHL goalie at times. And Pavelec did so despite injuries that caused his top three defensemen to miss a combined 53 games. Zach Bogosian, Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom all missed significant time on Winnipeg’s blue line this season.
Excuses aside, the Jets have to be better. Winnipeg will once again play in the Southeast Division, so the team will have to play better away from the MTS Centre. Another area of concern this offseason is bolstering a relatively weak prospect pool, which ranked No. 28 in the league back in November on Hockey’s Future.
Luckily, the Jets have a top ten pick to work with in the upcoming 2012 NHL Draft. Winnipeg drafted Mark Scheifele No. 7 overall a year ago, but they must continue to surround him with talent for the organization to develop a model for long term success. Scheifele is currently carrying the Barrie Colts through the OHL playoffs.
There is work to be done, but the 2011-12 season was certainly one to remember for the Jets and their fans. The honeymoon is over, though. And sustaining the buzz is priority No. 1 in Winnipeg.