WINNIPEG – Last season, hockey fans in Winnipeg were just happy to have their beloved Jets back home.
It will be a different story when they return for their second campaign, a compressed season expected to begin later this month after the NHL and its players reached a tentative collective bargaining agreement to end the lockout Sunday.
After moving to Winnipeg from Atlanta, the Jets finished the 2011-12 season tied for 10th in the Eastern Conference, eight points out of a playoff spot with a 37-35-10 record.
The team could have gone winless and still been cheered on a nightly basis by its adoring fans, who had waited 15 years for the NHL to return to the city.
But now, after an extended off-season thanks to the work stoppage, the expectations will be higher for the Jets. Fans are expecting a tweaked roster to challenge for a post-season berth.
While the team wouldn’t comment on the tentative agreement or the upcoming season Sunday, head coach Claude Noel said at the end of the 2011-12 campaign that the bar has to be raised.
“I was real patient this year, which was real good for me and I think it was good for the team,” he said in April. “I’ll be less patient next year.”
The Jets did more adding than subtracting to their roster before the league locked out the players Sept. 15. The top 10 scorers from last year’s team are all back to go along with the free-agent acquisitions of veteran forwards Olli Jokinen and Alexei Ponikarovsky.
While they’ll be expected to give the team some added scoring punch, the Jets’ success or failure in 2013 is more likely to be determined at the other end of the ice. The team finished 12th in league in goals scored last season, but was 26th in goals against.
Ondrej Pavelec started 67 games in net, posting below-average numbers but making enough highlight-reel saves to earn a five-year, US$19.5-million contract in the summer. It was later discovered that—without the Jets’ knowledge—he had pled guilty to a drunk-driving charge in his native Czech Republic shortly before agreeing to the deal.
The only Jets player who will face comparable scrutiny this year is 21-year-old forward Evander Kane, whom the team signed to a six-year, $31.5-million deal right before the lockout started. Kane is coming off a 30-goal season, and the Jets believe he can become a superstar. But Jets fans couldn’t have been happy to see their prized forward score just one goal (and add zero assists) in a 12-game stint in the KHL in the fall.
Combine the financial commitment with Kane’s tendency to stir up controversy off the ice—most recently, he posted a photo of himself on Twitter holding two large stacks of cash on a Las Vegas balcony—and patience will be thin if he doesn’t score early and often.
Kane was showing his support for the fans Sunday.
“FINALLY! The NHL has come back to the millions and MILLIONS of the games fans,” he tweeted.
Several other questions will be answered soon in the abbreviated training camp:
—Will Mark Scheifele stick? The team’s first-round pick in the 2011 draft had eight points for Canada at the recent world junior hockey championship, and will have a chance to make the team—at least to start the season.
—Is Zach Bogosian healthy? The 22-year-old defenceman, who averaged more than 23 minutes of ice-time last year, had off-season wrist surgery five months ago and should be getting close to 100 per cent.
—Is Big Buff in shape? Offensive defenceman Dustin Byfuglien was never in the kind of shape the team wanted last year. With no in-person contact with trainers for nine months, his weight and conditioning is anyone’s guess.