October 09 2011 11:02AM
Well, it's finally here. Jets 2.0 begin their real play this afternoon not simply as the focus of a city's interest, but as the center of the hockey world for at least one day, which seemed utterly inconceivable six months ago. It's still hard to accept, to be honest, but even those of us inclined to cynicism about the community's mood in the runup to today's event have had to acknowledge that something good is on the cusp. It's fair to say that for many Winnipeggers, today is a quasi-religious celebration of something lost and returned in its own way.
As a local, the mood of my fellow Winnipeggers is so ingrained by now that their joy has been of less interest to me than the view from beyond the Perimeter. I'll confess that as a mild cynic, it's been an amusing few days watching our country's fourth estate in action, as the outside media have been fawning over a place that most of them primarily used as the butt of jokes until a few months ago. I suppose it's better than being known as the murder capital of the nation, but as Bart Kives correctly notes this morning, there's a lot more to any city than a few shiny baubles or a few foul events.
That stipulated, today is a day to savour for fans, a day to remind ourselves of something set aside 15 years ago. Hockey at its highest level is in our midst again, hopefully for good, and with that, it's Jets Nation's first real Gameday as well. It's good to be back.
The locals will start proceeedings this afternoon much as they finished last year in Georgia, with a mobile defence, a promising goalie, and a few, if not quite enough, decent forwards. For all the bustle around the franchise, the team itself hasn't seen much adjustment to the personnel, so it's become quite clear that this season will one of assessment for all concerned. Steve Tambellini would feel right at home ;-)
Most of this fall's focus has been on Mark Scheifele as he attempts to stick in the bigs, but the line that will almost certainly carry any hopes the Jets may have of competence won't feature him. Ladd, Little and Wheeler will spend this year carrying the mail, and one hopes that the nice signs Blake Wheeler displayed after he joined the club from the Bs carries forward. His story is still largely about talent and promise more than proven ability, but he might have more tools than any of the other forwards. Any successful season here requires him to make the leap from decent NHLer to legit top-sixer.
Kane and Scheifele draw Kyle Wellwood as a cohort for now, as the team waits for Eric Fehr to heal up. In the short term, it will have to do, and I suspect Noel will shelter the trio a bit, or at least until he knows exactly what he has in the two younger guys. Kane is the other holdover that likely needs a breakout season if the Jets hope to be decent. Like Wheeler, he's got great ability, so presuming his coach gives him the high ground, Evander Kane will have his chances to produce.
I suspect that leaves Burmistrov and Antropov as players that might have to play good comp most nights. For now, Brett MacLean will ride shotgun, as the former 'Yote joined the club this weekend off the waiver wire. He has plenty of AHL pedigree, but history's full of guys that couldn't make the leap. I'll be interested if he can move well enough to get to the holes, since his skating is one thing that has been under scrutiny during his pro career.
The D is in place, and the job of playing alongside Zach Bogosian has been handed, at least for now, to Mark Stuart. It's not always the easiest role to master, since young D like Bogosian often have a rather novel sense of what constitutes good positioning. One only hopes that Charlie Huddy's tutelage can guide Bogo on his way, because he has significant gifts from the neck down that could lift the Jets if properly harnessed.
The other gent worth watching is obviously Byfuglien. He's had a late summer to forget away from the rink, and he only played twice in pre-season due to nagging hurts, so it's been hard to get a sense of where he's at in terms of his play. He's an astonishing talent, though, likely the best on the club, and his ability to focus on the game at both ends of the ice will be under some scrutiny this season. Unorthodox style aside, he can be a real difference maker if he can marry his offfensive instincts to just a bit more defensive nous.
Ondrej Pavelec will get the nod today and most other nights, for good reason. He did struggle over the last half of the year, but his good World Championships and his general history hint at a solid player. He looked reasonable in the pre-season, although reading too much from the disjointed nature of exhibition season always seems like a bit of a fool's errand.
Today is also a day for Claude Noel. I'm a believer that players mean a lot more than any coach, but the manangement disorganization that so many of these players faced in Atlanta often appeared to spill over on to the ice, so the quality of the guidance that he and his assistants mete out needs to be watched closely. If there was ever a team that could use a bit of structure, last year's Thrashers were it.
The opposition, hand picked by the team and the league, are Les Glorieux. Fresh off a whipping from the Leafs, the Habs are in a bit of flux as they pull into town. They don't really have the horses up front to be elite, and Andrei Markov's ongoing maladies leave them at least one top player short on the back end. As a result, they'll have to lean a bit too heavily on Subban, Price, Cammalleri and Plekanec to be more than a fringe playoff team barring some miracle. In other words, this is a good team to start against, in that they're representative but not great.
Gamewise, I might worry a touch about rust. The Jets have spent the last nine days practicing, so they might have some heavier legs than normal. I suppose that they can always hope for a lift from the patrons if they need a boost of energy, as enthusiasm from the masses seems to be a substance in large supply these days.
It will, in the end, be the fans that will feature this afternoon, even more than any actual result, and for today, that's as it should be. The current atmosphere in Winnipeg is about two steps past giddy, and I can't imagine anything but a raptorous welcome from well before the warmups onward. The Commish might not even get booed out of the rink, which should be the ultimate example of how happy, and how forgiving, the citizenry is at the moment.
At any rate, something that means so much to so many has returned in full to a place that's been aching for a decade and a half, and that's the best part of all. Gametime is at 4 CT on the People's Network, and note that a replay of Fuelled By Passion will proceed this afternoon's affair at 2 CT. Enjoy.