WINNIPEG - The Winnipeg Jets are ready to take their next important steps together.
As the relocated NHL team hits the ice for first on-ice sessions Saturday morning at MTS Iceplex, thereís a remarkable buzz surrounding the team.
Itís been like that all summer ó from the initial intention-to-purchase announcement, to the naming of the team, the unveiling of the logo and ultimately the jerseys ó and itís sure to remain throughout the course of the 2011-12 and beyond.
It will be an intense environment surrounding the franchise and every single game will be an event.
That much is clear.
But many are still wondering what the Jets actually inherited when Mark Chipman and David Thomson purchased the Atlanta Thrashers.
With the home opener against the Montreal Canadiens just a few weeks away, here are five critical questions the 2.0 Jets will look to answer throughout the course of the inaugural season:
1) Is Ondrej Pavelec ready to take the next step?
The 24-year-old Czech netminder had a scare just 2:25 into the season opener last season as he collapsed in his net and lost consciousness, but he battled back to full health to play a career-high 58 games and put his stamp on the No. 1 job. His numbers were steady, but some people believe Pavelec has what it takes to be an elite goalie. He led the Chicago Wolves to a Calder Cup in the AHL and helping this Jets team reach the post-season would be a big stepping stone in his career.
2) Which Dustin Byfuglien will we see?
The hulking 26-year-old from Roseau, Minn., embraced the full-time move to the back end by leading all blue-liners with 20 goals last season while putting up a career-best 53 points. His production dipped during the second half of the season but heís a physical force and can be one of the more dominant players at his position when heís on his game.
3) Where will the goals come from?
A season ago, captain Andrew Ladd and Byfuglien finished one-two in scoring and were the only players to crack the 20-goal plateau. Three others potted 16 or more but while itís important to score by committee and have a balanced attack, guys like Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little will need to bump up their production for sure. Nik Antropov could be a big-time game changer and now that heís healthy, a 30-goal season isnít out of the question.
4) Just how good is the defence corps?
For the past few months weíve heard all about how this would be one of the biggest strengths of the club, both in terms of high-end talent and depth. Byfuglien is already a household name, Tobias Enstrom is ready to step into the national spotlight, Zach Bogosian seems genuinely enthused by the fresh start in the Jets organization, while Ron Hainsey is a capable veteran along with the likes of Johnny Oduya, Mark Stuart, Randy Jones and a host of others, like Winnipegger Derek Meech, hoping to push their way up the depth chart.
5) Which young player takes the biggest leap forward?
With two seasons under his belt, many believe Evander Kane is on the verge of superstardom. A jump from 19 to 30-plus goals would represent outstanding progress and is surely a possibility. Another young guy to watch is centre Alexander Burmistrov, a 19-year-old who was miscast in a checking role last season and should fight for Top-6 minutes in his sophomore season and has tremendous offensive upside as well.