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Ready To Fly: Winnipeg Jets set to open season amid excitement, optimism

The Hockey News

The Hockey News

WINNIPEG - Andrew Ladd was idling in the drive-thru line at Tim Hortons when it was his turn to move up to the window.

As he was passed his coffee, the clerk told Ladd it had been paid for by the person in the vehicle in front of his.

"It was pretty neat," the Winnipeg Jets captain said. "Obviously, for them to recognize me from the car ahead was something that usually doesn't happen."

Such is the fish bowl the Jets will be swimming in since it was announced May 31 that the Atlanta Thrashers had been bought by True North Sports and Entertainment and were moving to NHL-starved Winnipeg.

No ticket is more coveted than one for Sunday's season-opener against the Montreal Canadiens at the 15,004-seat MTS Centre, which is sold out for at least the next three years.

Crowds at the pre-season games were loud and proud, welcoming back their own NHL club for the first time since the old Jets were moved to Phoenix in 1996 and became the Coyotes.

If adoration and applause can translate into wins, the reborn Jets should chalk up a few more victories than its Atlanta predecessor.

The Thrashers finished 12th in the Eastern Conference last season and out of the playoffs with a 34-36-12 record, largely due to a second-half slump that saw them go 14-21-6.

"It's great for the fans to show such great appreciation for your play on the ice and what you do off the ice," third-year forward Evander Kane said of the new atmosphere.

"It makes you feel good, gives you an extra boost and it makes you just want to win that much more. That can only help in the wins and loss column."

Last season's team leader with 59 points, the 25-year-old Ladd is one of a number of familiar faces on a roster that hasn't seen many changes.

Ladd, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little form the top line, while Kane, Nik Antropov and Alexander Burmistrov are expected to up their 40-point totals from last season.

New forwards include Eric Fehr, Tanner Glass, Kyle Wellwood and 18-year Mark Scheifele, who signed an entry-level contract on Monday.

The team has nine games to decide whether to keep this year's first-round draft pick (seventh overall) or send the Kitchener, Ont., native back for a second year of junior with the OHL Barrie Colts.

Fans were chanting Scheifele's name during a pre-season debut that included four goals and four assists in five games. That was good for second place in NHL pre-season scoring behind Dallas' Mike Ribeiro, who had two goals and 10 points.

"He looks like he's ready to make that jump and help us," Kane said of Scheifele. "For us, I think we're building from within and that's how you can be successful."

Six defencemen have returned from last season's roster, including Dustin Byfuglien, who led all NHL blue-liners last season with 53 points. However, just 13 of those points were notched in the second half.

Byfuglien, 26, is also facing four charges in Minnesota related to impaired boating, and it's yet to be seen whether that off-ice trouble will be a distraction for the six-foot-five Minneapolis native.

Other returnees on the blue line include Zach Bogosian, Tobias Enstrom, Ron Hainsey, Mark Stuart and Johnny Oduya. Enstrom was third in team scoring last season with 51 points in 72 games.

Defencemen Randy Jones and Derek Meech were added to the mix through free agency. Some notables who are gone include wingers Anthony Stewart (39 points) and Radek Dvorak.

"(The roster) hasn't changed a whole lot, but there's definitely been some changes that have happened and I think they're for the better,”said Kane.

"I think that a lot of up-and-coming and good, young guys have continued to grow the last few years and are looking forward to making a big jump this year and on."

Kane, 20, is one of those up-and-comers. The Vancouver native had 14 goals and 26 points in his rookie season and upped those numbers to 19 goals and 43 points last season.

A number of areas have to improve for the Jets to be playoff contenders in the 30-team league.

The Thrashers were 20th in league scoring (218), 29th in goals against (262) and 27th in penalty killing.

Ondrej Pavelec will start in net, with veteran Chris Mason backing him up.

"What I saw in front of me (during the final pre-season game), the guys played really well in front of me," Pavelec said.

The 23-year-old Czech got into 58 games with Atlanta last season and went 21-23-9 with a 2.73 goals against average and .914 save percentage.

He predicts Byfuglien will be one of the guys who will help make his job easier.

"That guy is special," Pavelec said. "He can score the goals, he can skate, he's so strong on the puck, he's so strong one-on-one…

"I'm lucky I play with him. I don't want to play against him."

New Jets head coach Claude Noel, who guided the AHL Manitoba Moose last season, has praised his players' intelligence.

"I like what we have here," said Noel, who was interim head coach with the Columbus Blue Jackets at the end of the 2009-2010 NHL season.

"We have the potential to do some good things, I believe, with what we have. And then we'll decide if things need to be tweaked."


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