The Winnipeg Jets have once again failed to banish the spectre of the Atlanta Thrashers as they bid goodbye Friday after bowing out of the playoff race in their final game.
“Last night is three years in a row now for me and it just leaves an empty feeling in your stomach and failure to me,” said captain Andrew Ladd, his mood little improved from game night.
“I’m sure there’ll be changes and we as a group have to figure out a way to be more consistent.”
No one had much of an idea what those changes might be, saying that’s in the hands of general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.
The Jets had been left with only the longest of shots to make the playoffs.
Winnipeg had to beat the Montreal Canadiens in its final game, and needed either the New York Rangers or Ottawa Senators to lose all of their remaining games.
The Jets struck out on three scoreboards Thursday night, with Ottawa and New York both winning before Winnipeg allowed three goals in the third period of a 4-2 loss to Montreal.
Their ninth-place finish is still better than their debut season as the Jets, when they finished 11th and were well out of the picture well before their last game. The team that started its life in Atlanta in 1999-2000 has so far made the playoffs only once in its history, in 2007.
Things won’t get easier next season as they leave the Southeast Division, not exactly the strongest in the NHL, for a new central time zone grouping that includes the likes of Chicago, Dallas and Minneapolis.
Despite Ladd’s talk of changes, coach Claude Noel says he thinks the Jets could have made the playoffs both last season and this season with the players they have now.
It’s a group and coaching issue, as far as he’s concerned.
“They’re some areas where I suppose we could use a little more . . . but I’m not going to discuss those today,” he said Friday.
Last season Winnipeg was strong at home but weak on the road and had to fight to get back to a .500 record.
This year was different. The Jets were stronger on the road (a little weak at home at first) but also, as late as the last week in March, still looked like a pretty good bet for post-season life.
Then a five-game slide put Winnipeg behind the 8-ball. Although the Jets went 6-2-1 to close out the season, the teams ahead of them were just as hot.
Forward Blake Wheeler put it succinctly after Thursday night’s loss when he said you have to expect peaks and valleys in a season.
“I just think some of our valleys were too deep,” he said. “You look at five games where we go and we don’t get any points in five straight games. That realistically probably did us in.”
He said good teams find a way to at least get a point.
Noel was slightly more upbeat than some of his players as he said he saw some real growth.
“I think young players grew quite a bit. Evander Kane grew quite a bit, I think [Ondrej] Pavelec grew quite a bit, they all did. It would be hard to sit and say ‘Well he didn’t’.”
Kane turned into a more physical and focused part of Winnipeg’s offence and Pavelec was the peg on which the team hung its hat many nights, even though a casual glance at some of his numbers might not suggest it.
He was the NHL’s hardest working goaltender with 2,552.43 minutes on the ice in 44 games.
Like everyone else though, he was leaving with a bitter taste in his mouth Friday after missing the playoffs yet again.
“I’ve been in the league for six years and I’ve never made it so it’s kind of disappointing and I want to change that, that’s for sure,” he said.
Ladd, Bryan Little and Wheeler also cemented themselves as the team’s top line this season with a combined 119 points. Ladd was the team’s scoring leader, finishing with 46 points for the abbreviated season.
The Jets still need to sign Little and Wheeler to new contracts.
Kane has undergone quite a transformation this season and echoes Noel when he says believing they can win every night is at least part of the answer, followed by playing to make it come true.
“We showed down the stretch that if we put our minds to it we can be a pretty good hockey team and we can have some success,” said Kane.
“That needs to carry over into the entire season next year and you know it’s back . . . to an 82 game schedule so consistency and the work we put in is going to be key.”