WINNIPEG – As they flirt with only their second playoff berth in franchise history, the Winnipeg Jets are expected to stay the course with their roster.
Coach Claude Noel says his team—hovering around the eighth-place spot in the Eastern Conference as Monday’s trade deadline looms—has met expectations so far this season.
“I didn’t for one second think it would be easy,” Noel said. “I thought we’d be in this battle just like this.”
But if they do make the playoffs, Noel says they could take the next step in their development.
“To me the value of making the playoffs is winning a round in the playoffs,” he said. “That’s really the important part of it. If you can, that’s no easy task. That’s the lessons you want your young players to learn.”
Assistant captain Chris Thorburn is the first to admit that trade decisions are above his pay grade.
“It’s a business, so if something’s out there that management’s attracted to they’re going to do it,” he said. “From the players perspective, we’re a tight group in here. We’ve got great chemistry. It seems to be coming to the forefront, especially as of late.”
On the plus side, Winnipeg has received solid goaltending from Ondrej Pavelec and backup Chris Mason.
Their forwards have started to put more pucks in the net. Blake Wheeler was named the NHL’s second star this week for his eight points in four games (seven assists, one goal).
When their defence is healthy—and plays well—they control the puck and tight checking has helped Winnipeg stay in the hunt when goals were scarce this season. They may lack a little size, with the exception of Dustin Byfuglien and Zach Bogosian, but they have speed and a fair amount of experience.
Sure, the team as a whole has driven Noel crazy at times when they seem to forget everything he has taught them, giving away some games, such as their 3-1 home loss to the New York Islanders Feb. 14.
But overall, he says the organization is happy with the way a bunch of young, relatively unknown Atlanta Thrashers have become a tightly knit squad that feeds off the energy of their rabid new fan base in Winnipeg.
There are a few underperformers such as Eric Fehr who might be removed without upsetting the team chemistry. But unloading Fehr, who has only one goal and one assist in 33 games this season and earns $2.2 million, could be tough.
In his defence, Fehr is only 26, has had better seasons in the past, and his size and playoff experience could come in handy. He scored three goals and added an assist for Washington in 2009-10, although the Capitals lost in seven to the Montreal Canadians in the first round that year.
He’s also a native of Winkler, Man., and it’s always good to have home boys on a team.
Then there are the pending unrestricted free agents like Jim Slater, Kyle Wellwood, Tim Stapleton and Johnny Oduya.
Forwards like Wellwood (36 points) and Stapleton (19) seem unlikely trade targets for a team that needs offence. Slater (13) has proved his worth in more than just goals.
Oduya (also 13 points) has been solid enough but the Jets may have enough strength on the farm in St. John’s to part with a blue-liner or two.
Then again, they’ve shown a lot of patience so far. While they may be building for the future, a taste of playoff hockey in their first season is a hard candy to turn down, even if they haven’t unwrapped it yet.