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Winnipeg Jets forward Kyle Wellwood (L) battles for the puck against Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri (R) during the first period of their NHL game in Toronto January 5, 2012. (MIKE CASSESE/REUTERS)
Winnipeg Jets forward Kyle Wellwood (L) battles for the puck against Toronto Maple Leafs forward Nazem Kadri (R) during the first period of their NHL game in Toronto January 5, 2012. (MIKE CASSESE/REUTERS)

Leafs and Jets both pushing to rebuild on the fly Add to ...

It is a line out of some poor, tortured Toronto Maple Leafs fan’s long-forgotten fantasy.

Nik Antropov. Kyle Wellwood. Alexei Ponikarovsky.

But there they were on Tuesday night in Winnipeg, filling out the third line of the reborn Jets as they took on (and eventually beat in overtime) the lowly Florida Panthers.

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That curious combination of Leafs castoffs is a new one, and given their production, it may not stick. This is a trio that has just two goals and five points between them after nine games played, decidedly meagre production for their $7.5-million (all currency U.S.) combined salaries.

“We didn’t score,” Ponikarovsky said of the three playing together, five years after they were all member of the dismal 2007-08 Leafs, “but it was pretty good.”

Welcome to Year 2 of the NHL’s return to Winnipeg, where the roster is very much in transition and veteran bodies like these three former Leafs – all pending unrestricted free agents and all 29 to 32 years old – are merely passing through.

And what exactly these Jets are transitioning to is very much up in the air.

Much like the Leafs, who they’ll face here on Thursday night, Winnipeg is a young group stuck in a cluster of teams in the low end of the Eastern Conference’s mediocre bottom half.

As is the case with all of them, with a few breaks their way – a shootout win here, a surprise 20-goal man there – they could make the playoffs. In most plausible scenarios, however, they’re likely to be on the outside looking in, yet again.

After a debut season a year ago where they finished 11th in the East and four points up on Toronto, the Jets have gutted out a .500 record which is again based largely on their ability to win at the raucous MTS Centre.

The Leafs, meanwhile, can’t seem to win at all in the increasingly quiet confines of home.

Neither franchise is poised to contend for a Stanley Cup in the near term, nor do they appear to have any interest in taking the Edmonton Oilers’ intended route – being bad in order to get good – to the top.

“I think there’s always a win-now mentality,” Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said on Wednesday, hours after announcing Mark Scheifele, the team’s 2011 first-rounder, was being sent back to junior. “You never say I’m going to try to win tomorrow.

“But at the same token, you’re not going to win at all costs. You’re not going to throw the future out the window here for the sake of just trying to do something short term.”

It’s a mantra that sounds a lot like what former Leafs GM Brian Burke preached, and one that’s been in place in various organizations around the league for years – especially in Canadian cities, where the pressure to do well is constant, even in seemingly bulletproof markets like Toronto and a still rejoicing Winnipeg.

The danger is that you end up like a franchise like the Calgary Flames, with an older roster that perpetually finishes just outside of the postseason.

That can be what “a win-now mentality” brings, in the wrong hands.

In Winnipeg, the core they’ve decided to lock up and try to win with revolves around Evander Kane, Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Toby Enstrom and Ondrej Pavelec, all of whom are signed beyond 2014-15.

In Toronto, it’s less clear who they will lean on, with only Mikhail Grabovski, Joffrey Lupul, James Van Riemsdyk and John-Michael Liles in that boat and tough decisions to be made on Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf in the next 12 months.

There’s certainly a heated debate to be had which franchise is closer to the end goal. These are incomplete rosters, with holes at most positions and a prospect base that doesn’t look like that of a team that’s finished out of the postseason with regularity.

Can either of these teams rise up from being 80- to 85-point ones year after year to become a 100-point contender in the next few years?

Or is this unrelenting push to win now the wrong way to go in a league where superstar talent is so hard to come by?

Stuck in the middle

The Leafs and Jets franchises haven’t had much success since the 2004-05 lockout – finishing higher than 18th and making the playoffs only once – but also haven’t been able to accumulate really high end talent through the draft or otherwise.

 

Toronto

Winnipeg/Atlanta

 

Points

NHL rank

Points

NHL rank

2005-06

90

18th

90

19th

2006-07

91

18th

97

12th

2007-08

83

24th

76

28th

2008-09

81

24th

76

27th

2009-10

74

29th

83

23rd

2010-11

85

22nd

80

25th

2011-12

80

26th

84

22nd

2012-13*

82

15th

82

17th

 

*– projected over 82 games (before Wednesday’s games)

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