Expectations high as Jets enter shortened season
Size, experience added to lineup
Getting an NHL team back was enough of a high for 2011-12, but fans and the team are expecting more as the Winnipeg Jets enter their second season.
Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff made that clear months ago when his team finished out of the playoffs last season.
"It's a sport that we play for the fans. . . We would expect nothing less than expectations continue to grow each and every day," he said.
This season, they want to snag the playoff berth that seemed tantalizingly close at times last year.
They've added a little size and little experience, but Jets version 2.2 doesn't look a lot different from last year, so whether they achieve that goal or not remains a big question mark.
It likely doesn't hurt their chances that realignment has been shelved for another season.
Although the Jets finished fourth in the Southeast Division, they had a division-leading 32 points and 14-6-4 record against Southeast rivals.
Not too intimidated by travel schedule
And they aren't particularly bummed out by travel prospects in what is already a very tight schedule.
"It is what it is and it's not that bad," coach Claude Noel said. "I really like the way it closes up in April with the homestand."
The Jets play six straight home games from April 6-April 20, two on the road and then return for their final regular-season game April 25 against Montreal.
The Jets have to look inside, not outside, as they prepare for this season, Noel suggests.
"When you look at all the numbers and you look at the way we performed last year, there were some glaring areas that we have to be better. . .
"If we're going to find solutions to the problems that we have, then let's address the problems and let's find solutions to these problems, the schedule is what it is."
So what are the problems?
No. 1 on the list seems to be defence. The Jets allow too many shots — quality shots — on their own net.
Their defence, in particular Dustin Byfuglien, is great on offence. Byfuglien tied for second in the league in scoring by a defenceman and overall the defence was No. 5 in scoring in 2011-12.
Despite ranking near the top of the list in the number of saves he managed, goalie Ondrej Pavelec's percentages were well down in the pack, in part because he just faced too many shots.
Bogosian still recovering
There are no big changes in personnel this season on defence, although the Jets have a hole to fill early with Zach Bogosian still recovering from wrist surgery.
Instead, Noel is trying to make the players he has more alert to what's going on around them when coming back and in certain key areas to prevent quality shots.
Problem No. 2, home versus away.
The Jets were a solid 23-13-5 at home last season. The MTS Centre is sold out for every game, fans are loud and proud and the energy is palpable.
Almost every team does better playing at home but 14-22-5 on the road isn't a path to the playoffs. Washington (16-21-4) and Detroit (17-21-3) were the only sub .500 road teams that qualified last season.
The Jets scored 122 goals at home last season, good enough for eighth in the league. They let in 100 and their power-play was ranked No. 2.
On the road, they scored 99 goals but, perhaps even more telling they gave up 142, the second worst number in the league, which again points to the need to improve defensively. Their power play ranked a dismal 28th.
With four players scoring 50 points or better last season, the Jets clearly have an offence, but they also need to perform well no matter where they play. New addition Olli Jokinen had 61 points with the Flames, so he improves the odds significantly.
Problem No. 3, youth.
With youth comes inexperience and the Jets were a fairly young team.
Now, not quite so much. Evander Kane may be just 21 but it looks like he's on a line with Jokinen, whose 34 years and more than 1,000 NHL games help tilt the scales.
Not that Kane was ineffective last year as Winnipeg's No. 2 scorer, with a personal-best 30 goals. But the Jets need even more from him if they want to play past April.
Alexei Ponikarovsky, 32, also has been added to the offence and could be playing alongside Alex Bumistrov, 21, on the team's third line.
Mark Scheifele, still just 19, is trying to crack the lineup but the field is getting pretty crowded with the addition just this week of husky fourth-line winger Anthony Peluso.
Players like Blake Wheeler, last year's scoring leader in Winnipeg, just seem to keep getting better but Noel also wants to see a mental change in the rest of his team this season.
"I would just like us to start walking and behaving like winners," he said.
"We've got to go in expecting to win on the road, expecting things, more from each other on the road. That's the attitude difference that I'd like us to start thinking about.
"But a lot of that is earned. Teams that are constantly above the line and in the playoffs, that just becomes a normal every-day existence for them. We haven't reached that point yet."