FANTASY POOL HERO: Andrew Ladd
UNSUNG HERO: Tobias Enstrom
TOUGH GUY: Mark Stuart replace with Chris Thorburn
SLEEPER: Nik Antropov
ROOKIE TO WATCH: Mark Scheifele
ON THE DECLINE: Kyle Wellwood
The story of the return of the Winnipeg Jets has captivated the hockey world since Mark Chipman stepped to the podium May 31 and announced his purchase of the Atlanta Thrashers.
It has been 15 seasons since the original Jets relocated to the Arizona desert but it appears NHL hockey is back with a vengeance. A full season of sellouts at MTS Centre is a given and the buzz surrounding the 2.0 version of the Jets is at fever pitch.
The spotlight will be bright, but the players have embraced it so far.
What kind of team did the Jets inherit?
The Thrashers had a strong start in 2010-11 and were battling for top spot in the Southeast Division but hit a bump in the road and never fully recovered, slipping to 12th in the Eastern Conference and finishing 13 points behind the New York Rangers for the eighth and final playoff berth.
There haven’t been many flashy free-agent signings or blockbuster deals to date, but general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff brought in high-character guys Tanner Glass and Eric Fehr (who starts the season on injured reserve but is expected back in mid-November) and is banking on young players such as Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little taking the next step in their development and becoming high-level scorers.
The defence will be a strength and goalie Ondrej Pavelec is pushing to join the ranks of elite-level netminders.
A playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is no easy task, but the Jets believe they have a legitimate shot to achieve that goal.
Captain Andrew Ladd was the only Thrashers forward to crack the 20-goal plateau in 2010-11, getting a career-high 29 goals and 59 points. However, several players -Kane, Wheeler and Little among them -seem poised to take their game to the next level. Upon his return from off-season shoulder surgery, Eric Fehr should give the attack a boost while second-year centre Alex Burmistrov should flourish in a more offensive role. Nik Antropov is healthy and rejuvenated and should chip in with 25-plus goals, while Kyle Wellwood is expected to be a key faceoff guy who will be a bargain at $700,000 on a one-year deal if he can regain his scoring touch.
Seen by most observers as the strength of the team, defence is easily the position in the organization with the most depth at both the NHL and AHL levels. It is anchored by the powerful Dustin Byfuglien, who led all NHL blue-liners with 20 goals last season. Unheralded Swede Tobias Enstrom had 51 points and is likely to become a household name while playing in a hockey-mad Canadian market. With a new contract in hand and all of those trade rumours in the rearview mirror, Zach Bogosian should be able to focus on the continued development of his game. Veterans Ron Hainsey, Mark Stuart, Johnny Oduya and Randy Jones bring a nice blend of skill and sandpaper to the group.
Pavelec is just 24 but is ready to elevate his game in what will be his fifth professional season. After collapsing in his crease and suffering a concussion just over two minutes into the Thrashers season opener last year, Pavelec bounced back and appeared in a career-high 58 games while posting 21 victories. The product of the Czech Republic led the Chicago Wolves to the Calder Cup championship as a rookie in 2008 and now the pressure is on to lead the Jets to the post-season. Chris Mason is coming off a subpar season but is seen as a capable backup who can carry the load, should an injury or something unforeseen arise. He’s only two seasons removed from appearing in a career-high 61 games with the St. Louis Blues.
Claude Noel replaces Craig Ramsay as coach and Cheveldayoff takes over as GM from Rick Dudley. Noel is long on head-coaching experience but is preparing for his first full season as an NHL bench boss. His ability to communicate and his strength as a teacher should serve him well with what is a young and developing team. The defence corps, already a strength, should only improve with the addition of longtime NHLer Charlie Huddy as an assistant.
Cheveldayoff is entering his first season running his own NHL team, but he and director of hockey operations Craig Heisinger have taken the necessary steps to help rebuild the organizational depth.
There is certainly some baggage, as the Jets inherit an Atlanta Thrashers history that includes one playoff appearance and a grand total of zero post-season victories in 11 seasons. But this is a fresh start for the franchise and enthusiasm around the team and the fan base is high. The atmosphere at Atlanta’s Phillips Arena wasn’t exactly raucous on most nights last season, but the vibe at a sold-out arena in their new home is something players hope to use to their advantage. Jets management is taking a patient, long-term view in building toward becoming a Stanley Cup contender, but there are heightened expectations for the immediate future as well.