The Winnipeg Jets didn’t make the playoffs in their first season in their new home, but that didn’t matter to fans thrilled to have an NHL franchise in their city after a 15-year absence.
Despite missing the post-season, the Jets were competitive, staying in contention until late in 2011-12.
Though the Jets’ honeymoon with Winnipeggers should carry over into this season (if it ever begins), those fans will expect improvement from their team.
Offensively, that shouldn’t be an issue, as the Jets were 12th in goals per game and on the power play last season.
The Jets have two budding scoring stars in left winger Evander Kane and right winger Blake Wheeler, the addition of veteran center Olli Jokinen should bolster their first line and left winger and team captain Andrew Ladd can be relied upon for more 20-goal, 50-point production.
It remains to be seen if center Bryan Little ever regains his 30-goal touch from 2008-09. Despite Little’s inconsistencies since then, he’s managed two 45-plus point seasons and should score at that pace again.
Right winger Kyle Wellwood, a depth signing last season, surprised many with a career-high 47-point effort. Having improved in conditioning and maturity, Wellwood should remain a worthy addition to Winnipeg’s offensive game.
Thanks to puck-moving defensemen Dustin Byfuglien (53 points in 66 games), Tobias Enstrom (33 points in 62 games) and Zach Bogosian (30 points in 65 games), the Jets have plenty of firepower from the blueline.
If the trio can stay healthy, the Jets overall offensive numbers (especially on the power play) should improve.
The Jets’ defensive game, however, remains a work in progress. In 2010-11 (their final season in Atlanta), they were 29th in goals against per game (3.20) and 27th on the penalty kill, surrendering the fifth-most shots per game (32.2).
Last season, under first-year coach Claude Noel, they made marginal improvement in GAA (26th at 2.95) and on the PK (24th). They also reduced their shots against per game to 30.1, good for 15th.
Injuries to Byfuglien, Enstrom and Bogosian were contributing factors to the poor defensive numbers, as was adjusting to Noel’s system. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff didn’t bolster his defense this summer, anticipating a healthier season from his blueline stars and that another year under Noel’s coaching will improve the defensive game.
Goaltending also remains a question mark. Starter Ondrej Pavelec, who re-signed on a five-year deal with the Jets this summer, played the fifth-most games last season, but the 68-game workload appeared to tire him down the stretch.
Cheveldayoff replaced departed backup Chris Mason with free agent Al Montoya, who showed promise with the New York Islanders until sidelined at mid-season by concussion.
Apart from signing Jokinen and Montoya, Cheveldayoff made few major off-season additions, saving his money to ink Pavelec and Kane to lengthy, expensive new contracts.
The re-signing of Kane to a six-year, $31.5-million deal hours before the expiration of the last collective bargaining agreement was notable, as he’d been a frequent fixture in the trade rumor mill for months. Cheveldayoff evidently has confidence the 21-year-old will become the Jets’ franchise player.
With a payroll of $57.2 million for this season, the Jets moved up from among the lowest cap teams to 20th overall, but they’re not expected to take on significant salary as this season progresses.
That doesn’t mean Cheveldayoff won’t make moves if required, but those would depend on the club’s placement in the standings nearer the trade deadline.
If the Jets are jockeying for a playoff berth, the Jets GM may take on a bit more salary for an affordable rental player.
Should the Jets be out of contention by that point, Cheveldayoff could shop pending free agents (forwards Nik Antropov, Alex Ponikorovsky, Antti Mietinen, and Wellwood, blueliners Ron Hainsey and Grant Clitsome) for draft picks and/or prospects.
Rumor Roundup appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays 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.