WINNIPEG – Winnipeg isn’t known for warm weather at this time of year.
But after failing to crack .500 on a six-game home stand, the Winnipeg Jets are putting some welcome distance between themselves and the heat unfulfilled expectations can create.
“Everybody wants everything right now and right away and it’s got to happen right now,” coach Claude Noel said this week, as they prepared for their first of four road games.
“On our team we’re trying to build some things and it takes time.”
Their last home game, a 5-4 shootout loss to the Washington Capitals, showed some of the good things the Jets can do.
They can skate fast, create scoring opportunities and they appear to have more depth on their forward lines than they’ve shown in previous seasons.
At the same time, some formerly reliable players are struggling, the team’s defensive game still seems wanting and consistency certainly isn’t one of their strengths.
In their new incarnation since relocating from Atlanta in 2011, there really have been only one and a half seasons to compare.
But that timespan has still seen expectations ratchet up in a city that hadn’t had NHL hockey for 15 years. There is no chance of flying under the radar and the Jets know they must improve.
Making the playoffs is a goal they desperately want to achieve.
But just how realistic is that, particularly with a shift to a new division and new conference, where the competition is a little stiffer?
“It is a process,” says Noel of the team’s growth.
“You have to work the process. It doesn’t happen overnight and there isn’t a manual for this stuff.”
The chance to spend a little time on the road isn’t unappreciated.
“We know better than anybody what’s going on,” says forward Blake Wheeler, whose own game hasn’t lived up to expectations so far this season.
The team scoring leader in 2011-12, and No. 2 in last year’s lockout-shortened season, he had only two goals in 10 games when the Jets left to start their road trip in Nashville on Thursday.
“The criticism from the fans, from the media, that comes with the territory when you’re not performing up to the expectations that people have.”
The Jets don’t look a lot different from the Thrashers in terms of key players. Besides Wheeler, the top forwards remain Evander Kane, Andrew Ladd and Bryan Little.
On defence, Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom and Zach Bogosian are still their go-to guys.
The biggest off-season additions were forwards Devin Setoguchi and Michael Frolik. They’re contributing solid games but not exactly altering the landscape.
General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff hasn’t strayed far from his steady-as-she goes model that focuses on the draft and developing from within.
Picks Mark Scheifele at top-line centre and Jacob Trouba on defence have been solid for the most part so far this season—but also not game changers. And Trouba is sidelined by injury, at least for the start of this road trip.
As part of a new seven-team Central Division, where three of those teams made the playoffs in 2013, the Jets are looking at a big hill to climb.
They’ll see how big this swing, with all four games coming against Central rivals. Heading into Thursday night’s game in Nashville, they managed only one win in four tries against a division rival—a shootout victory against St. Louis.
After Nashville, they head to Dallas on Saturday, play the second of a back-to-back in Denver on Sunday and finish in St. Louis on Tuesday.
It’s early, but their goal differential is still in minus territory, something Noel says must change if they want to win in the Western Conference and see playoff life.
In goals against, they were dead last at 30 as of Thursday morning in the Central, compared with just 12 for leader Colorado. But the Jets still sat at a relatively modest minus-4, thanks to the 26 they scored.
Noel doesn’t blame that on starter Ondrej Pavelec, although the starting goalie’s numbers in net continue to be sub-par.
“I think our goaltending’s been superb,” said Noel.
“I don’t think the numbers are fair with Pavelec. . . . He has made some spectacular saves at some key times and really kept us in some games.”
The Jets continue to allow more shots on goal than almost any other team in the league.
Noel has been trying to get more energy from the team, particularly at the start of games, and has seen fewer cases of the Jets being outshot. They held a 47-32 edge over the Capitals last Tuesday.
But wins haven’t always matched the effort expended.
All in all though, their coach insists he isn’t unhappy with their progress as they prepared for their 11th game of the season Thursday night.
“Yes I would like us to be better in some areas but that’s also part of the process,” he said.