From the moment the NHL announced its return to Winnipeg, the city’s focus turned immediately to the future: What would the team be called? What would the sweaters look like? Who would the first opponent be?
But new general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff was just as interested in looking back at what happened before the Atlanta Thrashers migrated north.
“I think you have to look at the past a little bit in the sense that (last year) was a tale of two seasons,” said Cheveldayoff, who was hired in June to replace Rick Dudley. “The first half they came out and played exceptionally well and the second half of the season something went wrong. You look at all the little indicators, you look at some of the things that maybe you can improve upon.”
It was a particularly important exercise in this situation because the roster remains virtually unchanged. Six of the defencemen and both goaltenders have returned from the NHL’s 29th-ranked team in goals against—not to mention roughly two-thirds of the forwards.
Atlanta found itself in playoff position midway through last season before going 14-21-6 down the stretch and tumbling to 12th in the Eastern Conference.
A number of key players slumped—big defenceman Dustin Byfuglien registered just 13 of his 53 points in the second half while top goaltender Ondrej Pavelec had a .893 save percentage in 31 appearances after Dec. 31—and former coach Craig Ramsay couldn’t make enough adjustments to right the ship.
“I think the pace of our game dropped off,” said captain Andrew Ladd. “The big thing for us was getting up the ice and putting pressure on other teams and forcing them to make mistakes. Once you have one or two guys not getting there in time, it gives teams an opportunity to get (the puck) out of their own end and get on the attack.
“Obviously we gave up too many goals,” he added. “You can point to a few things, but we had a young team and we can learn from that and not make that mistake twice.”
It will be up to new coach Claude Noel and his staff to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
The 55-year-old was given his first full-time head coaching job in the NHL after Cheveldayoff decided not to retain Ramsay. He was interim coach in Columbus for 24 games following Ken Hitchcock’s departure in February 2010 and spent last season in Winnipeg coaching the AHL’s Manitoba Moose.
“When I didn’t get the job in Columbus, there was disappointment,” Noel said after being hired by the Jets. “I just sort of held on to my own inner confidence and thought: `My day will come, I’ve just got to continue to try to do a good job and try to do some good work.”‘
After waiting 15 years for the NHL to return, it’s the kind of thinking enthusiastic hockey fans in Winnipeg can identify with.
The biggest unknown about the Jets season is what impact, if any, playing in a new city will have on the team’s performance. Dating back to the Atlanta Flames move to Calgary in 1980, the last six NHL franchises to have relocate averaged an 11-point improvement in their first year in a new setting.
For players who had grown accustomed to the relative anonymity they enjoyed with the Thrashers, there will be an adjustment period now that they’re the biggest game in a new town.
“Definitely it’s a big change,” said third-year forward Evander Kane. “Coming to a Canadian market and a Canadian city where hockey is No. 1. We’ve got some passionate fans, and a passionate province, so I think it’s a fresh start for everybody and everyone is looking forward to the challenge.”
Kane is the most intriguing player in the lineup. At just 20 years old, he’s expected to improve on a 19-goal season from a year ago and could develop into the team’s most dynamic offensive contributor.
The Jets will also lean heavily on the line of Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler and look for some added contributions from returnees Nik Antropov and Alex Burmistrov.
The new additions up front are largely being slotted into secondary roles: Eric Fehr, Kyle Wellwood, Tanner Glass and local boy Jason Gregoire.
On the blue-line, Byfuglien is expected to log big minutes again. The 26-year-old might also have to deal with some off-ice distractions after being charged with boating while intoxicated over the summer.
Zach Bogosian, Tobias Enstrom, Mark Stuart, Johnny Oduya, Ron Hainsey and Randy Jones round out the defence corps while Chris Mason will back up Pavelec in goal.
Every ticket in the 15,004-seat MTS Centre will be sold this season, potentially making the NHL’s smallest building a tough place for visiting teams to play.
“It’s a little bit of a smaller footprint and the fans are going to be right on top of the ice,” said Cheveldayoff.
One of the biggest challenges for the Jets will be enduring the agonizing wait for the regular season opener against Montreal on Oct. 9. It comes more than a week after the team wraps up the pre-season.
“We’ve known the schedule for a while now and we’ll plan around it,” said Cheveldayoff. “I think there’ll be a little bit of hype leading into the Sunday afternoon game (against Montreal). It’s kind of like everything for us this year, there’s been a lot of preparation and a lot of time that’s gone in, but at the end of the day you just want to get things started.
“I think that’s where everyone is at.”
With files from Avi Saper in Winnipeg.