It would’ve been the cherry on the sundae for Winnipeg Jets fans if their club could’ve made the playoffs in its first season back, but sadly it doesn’t appear that’s going to happen.
The Jets are currently 10th in the Eastern Conference, eight points behind the eighth-place Buffalo Sabres. With only five games remaining they could be mathematically eliminated from the playoff race by week’s end.
It’s a disappointment, but given that the Jets are still enjoying a honeymoon period with their fans, it will quickly be forgiven.
And despite missing the playoffs, there are some positives to take away from 2011-12.
The Jets showed improvement over last season’s performance in several areas.
They significantly reduced their shots-against per game from 26th overall to 14th, increased their goals-per-game from 20th to 15th and their power play efficiency rose from 12th to 10th.
They were also among the best teams at home (23-13-4), buoyed by sellout crowds of loud, adoring fans unlike anything they’d experienced in Atlanta.
Right winger Blake Wheeler and left winger Evander Kane continued to develop as scorers, posting their best numbers to date in their young careers.
Injuries hampered defensemen Dustin Byfuglien, Zach Bogosian and Tobias Enstrom. Nevertheless, Byfuglien is on pace for his second straight 50-plus point performance, Bogosian has bounced back well from last season’s disappointing effort, while Enstrom regained his form after recovering from a broken collarbone.
Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec is on pace for a career-best 30 wins and proved he could be a No. 1 goalie in the process.
Center Kyle Wellwood, a free agent signing last summer, proved a pleasant, versatile surprise and is on pace for a career-best 47 points.
Unfortunately, some of the same problems that plagued the Jets in their previous incarnation as the Thrashers continued to dog the team.
Despite the improvement in their defensive play – moving from 29th to 24th in goals-against per game and 27th to 24th on the penalty kill – the Jets were still among the league’s worst in those categories.
Their lack of depth at center was also apparent in the faceoff circle, where they made a marginal improvement (23rd last season to 21st overall) in faceoff wins.
As strong as the Jets were at home, they were among the worst on the road (12-21-4), which cost them valuable points. In March alone, Winnipeg has dropped four of five road games so far.
They’ve also struggled in back-to-back games, going 1-11 in the second games of those series.
The improvements by Wheeler and Kane were offset by the drop in production from left winger Andrew Ladd (on pace for 44 points, down from 56 a year ago), while center Bryan Little struggled with consistency.
Big things were expected of 20-year-old sophomore center Alexander Burmistrov, but while he’s shown some improvement, his 28 points in 70 games fell short of what was expected from him.
In their first season of operation, the Jets front office kept the payroll low. The $52 million the team spent against the cap ranked 24th overall and was roughly $3.6 million above the cap minimum of $48.3 million.
Given the change in management following the move from Atlanta to Winnipeg, it was understandable the team chose to avoid major expenditures (the re-signing of Ladd to a five-year, $22 million extension aside) and instead use the first year to evaluate the lineup.
Regardless of where the salary cap minimum ends up for next season under a new CBA, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff may end up spending well above it.
For starters, Kane and Pavelec are their key restricted free agents and will seek significant raises.
Decisions also have to be made with UFAs such as Wellwood, backup goalie Chris Mason and gritty forwards Jim Slater and Tanner Glass.
The Jets have about $36 million committed to 13 players for next season. Re-signing Pavelec and Kane will be expensive, plus Cheveldayoff must re-sign or replace their UFAs.
He’ll have to address their significant roster needs, which include a scoring center, a shutdown defenseman and more experienced skill on the checking lines.
Odds are the Jets won’t be among the top spending teams, but to fully address their needs the payroll will have to go beyond whatever the mid-point is in next season’s salary cap range.
The Jets were given a pass this season, but their fans will expect improvement in 2012-13, which should push management to make more substantial moves than the ones made last summer.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.