After the Atlanta Thrashers were sold to True North Sports and Entertainment in spring 2011, it was clear that Winnipeg was getting a NHL team back after much speculation. The franchise remained nameless right up until the draft, where they would be formally announced as the Winnipeg Jets. At that draft the Jets selected Mark Scheifele 7th overall, a pick that was met with scrutiny. However, Winnipeg brass and fans are hopefully he can become a player to build around.
Eventually, came the long awaited return of real, NHL hockey. On Sunday October 9, 2011, the Winnipeg Jets played their first ever regular season game at home. They would lose 5-1 to the Montreal Canadiens, but the team still received a thunderous ovation from a packed house of screaming hockey fans. With a new look, the Jets were back.
All the excitement and anticipation was met with ups and downs over the course of the season. After a slow start through the first two months of the season, the Jets roared through December, going 10-3-1. They followed up a great month with a dreadful 4-8-1 January. They would end up playing about .500 hockey down the stretch and were eliminated from playoff contention by March 31. They would finish 11th in the Eastern Conference.
Evander Kane had a breakout season for Winnipeg, notching 30 goals for the first time in his career and putting up 57 points. It was encouraging to see him finish the season strongly after he was invisible through most of January until having injury problems.
Blake Wheeler had a career year which included scoring points in 12 of 13 games late in the season and Jets captain Andrew Ladd again got close to hitting the 30-goal mark. Interestingly, despite some ups and downs, Ondrej Pavelec was considered by some to be the team’s MVP and cashed in on a nice payday.
Even though this team missed out on the playoffs, there are some building blocks in place that are encouraging. However, the future is still a bit uncertain.
The most significant free agent brought in this summer was center Olli Jokinen. Winnipeg scored the 12th most goals per game, but when they scored they didn’t defend, and when they defended they had trouble scoring. The Jets hope Jokinen can help in the scoring department while providing some grit as well.
Alexei Ponikarovsky is another intriguing addition, as he is a player who can play a solid two-way game but can potentially be productive offensively in a bottom-six role.
The Jets signed Al Montoya to be Pavelec’s backup, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Mark Dekanich at least challenges for the spot whenever camp begins. Nevertheless, he could be a very solid number three to have in the system.
Chris Mason will return to the Nashville Predators and backup Pekka Rinne after an average year as far as backup goalies go. The veteran netminder stepped in and did what he could on some nights and was shelled on others. It’s not a bad idea to go younger and cheaper in this spot with where the club currently is.
Tanner Glass also leaves and goes to the Pittsburgh Penguins, breaking up the fabled “GST Line.” Glass was liked within the Jets organization, but not enough to be re-signed. Glass provided the Jets with plenty of toughness, but is merely a fourth liner who can be replaced.
The Jets gave Ondrej Pavelec a significant raise and are counting on him to be their goalie of the future. He’ll have to keep his shaky starts to a minimum and show more of the dominant performances he’s capable of, especially on a team that struggles to score for long stretches.
Alexander Burmistrov is entering his third NHL season and the final year of his entry level contract. He had opportunities to play with Evander Kane last year and did not produce as much as was hoped for. At age 20, Burmistrov still has time to develop, but higher expectations and the motivation of playing for a new contract should see him have a breakout season.
The Jets find themselves playing in a division that got much stronger with key additions this offseason. Their goal is obvious: to make the playoffs. However, with Zach Bogosian out for at least four months, uncertainty surrounding Evander Kane’s future with the organization and some question marks up front, the Jets are a bubble team that could finish eighth just as easily as 15th in the Eastern Conference.
The Rant Sports 30 in 30 will examine one NHL team per day. Tomorrow: the Tampa Bay Lightning.