Maturing Jets grow into contenders

Winnipeg Jets' Chris Thorburn (22) celebrates his goal against the Buffalo Sabres with Evander Kane...

Winnipeg Jets' Chris Thorburn (22) celebrates his goal against the Buffalo Sabres with Evander Kane (R) and Jim Slater during the third period of their NHL hockey game in Winnipeg March 5, 2012. (REUTERS/Fred Greenslade)

Ted Wyman, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:37 PM ET

Way back in September, before training camp even officially opened, Ron Hainsey took a look at all the young talent at the IcePlex and knew his team had an opportunity to be vastly improved.

At the time, the veteran defenceman said if young players like Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler, Zach Bogosian, Alex Burmistrov, Bryan Little and Ondrej Pavelec could improve on the seasons they had last year in Atlanta, the Jets would be a playoff contender.

Hainsey remembered those prophetic words Thursday as the eighth-place Jets got ready for a game against the Vancouver Canucks, which was ongoing at press time.

“The guys who get the bulk of the ice time, we have younger players in a lot of those roles, so if they’re trending upwards, we all felt we were going to be in a position to have success,” Hainsey said.

“In the last two months, when all those guys have really played well, you’ve seen our team record improve. I don’t think it’s just at home. We’ve played better on the road as well and the team’s had more success.”

The numbers support Hainsey’s theory that the Jets key to success lies with their emerging players.

Kane (26 goals, 46 points), Wheeler (15 goals, 54 points) and Pavelec (25 wins, 2.74 GAA) are having career years. Little (19 goals, 37 points) has rebounded from a couple of down years to get back near the level of his rookie season when he scored 31 goals. Burmistrov (13 goals, 26 points) has flourished as a second-line centre and his modest point total doesn’t come close to telling how well he has played all season in a variety of roles. Bogosian (three goals, 22 points) has emerged as a smooth-skating, strong puckhandling defenceman with a great shot and a penchant for big hits.

All that improvement has the Jets in the thick of a playoff race and even a shot at the Southeast Division title with 72 points heading into Thursday’s game.

“The maturity level of everyone has gone up,” Jets veteran right-winger Chris Thorburn said. “We don’t really have an old team but this year we’ve just been able to grow. The young guys are getting more minutes and what they’re doing with those minutes is unbelievable.

“The bottom line is we need those guys to be our best players and so far this year they have been.”

Kane’s had a few ups and downs this season, but has been the Jets most consistent goal scorer. He long ago bettered his career high of 19 goals and leads the team with 26.

Still just 20, Kane was one of the players with the most need for maturation, and he’s gained a lot of it just by being on a team that is in the playoff race.

“We’ve gotten better as players and we’ve never been at this level in a playoff hunt at this point of the season,” Kane said. “Probably the biggest thing is learning how to bring your top game, every night, consistently until the last game of the season.

“The young guys and pretty much everyone in the room hasn’t been in this situation and I think we’re holding up pretty well.”

Jets coach Claude Noel has noticed the growth in his team and just as he was publicly vocal in his displeasure with some players earlier in the season, he has been equally quick to hand out pats on the back lately.

“From an age standpoint, you look at Wheeler, Kane and down the list … there’s a whole slew of them, Noel said. “It’s evident that our team has matured a lot and we’ve gained some experience in a lot of different ways. Last year’s production from Atlanta has improved, and there’s so much maturity that we’re really in a good place right now.”

A good place that Hainsey envisioned all those months ago.


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