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Carolina Hurricanes' Bryan Allen (5) knocks Winnipeg Jets' Blake Wheeler (26) off the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Friday, March 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker) (Karl B DeBlaker/AP)
Carolina Hurricanes' Bryan Allen (5) knocks Winnipeg Jets' Blake Wheeler (26) off the puck during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Friday, March 30, 2012. (AP Photo/Karl B DeBlaker) (Karl B DeBlaker/AP)


Black clouds gathering on Jets' horizon Add to ...

There aren’t many Winnipeg Jets fans more passionate than Jeremy Harder, a season-ticket holder who came up with the idea for the faithful at MTS Centre to yell “True North” during the national anthem in homage to the club’s owners, True North Sports and Entertainment Ltd. But even Harder wasn’t surprised the team didn’t make the NHL playoffs this season.

“I am a little disappointed we didn’t make the playoffs but I wasn’t expecting to qualify this season unless the stars aligned just so,” Harder said via e-mail Monday. Then he echoed what many around Winnipeg have been saying: “I’m just glad to have a team back.”

That’s probably good enough for the next few days as the city gears up for Winnipeg’s final game of the season, Saturday at the MTS Centre against the Tampa Bay Lightning. But soon fans and Jets management will take a closer look at the season and what happens next. They might not like everything they see.

For all the hype about the Jets returning to Winnipeg, the team itself hasn’t made much progress since it was the Atlanta Thrashers. Heading into Tuesday’s game against the Florida Panthers, the Jets have 81 points and have been officially eliminated from the playoffs. That’s just three points better than the Thrashers had last year and it’s the same point total Atlanta had two years ago. Winnipeg has three games remaining, meaning the best the Jets can do this season is 87 points. Not bad compared to the Thrashers, but far off the target set by Jets coach Claude Noel. He insisted last fall that Winnipeg was capable of making the playoffs and that the Jets would need roughly 96 points to get in. At best, Winnipeg will fall eight points short.

So what’s the problem? The obvious concern is the Jets’ inability to win on the road. The club’s road record is 13-21-5, vs. 23-13-4 at home. The Jets’ failure to win consistently on the road has confounded Noel all season and he has yet to come up with any meaningful answers. The Jets are also 1-12 in the second half of back-to-backs, another sore point for Noel.

The team’s vaunted home record also might not stand up next year. The Jets piled up half the team’s point total in two home game stretches; one in December and one in late February. Those were the only two months this season in which Winnipeg had a winning record.

Clearly teams arriving in Winnipeg for the first time found the rowdy crowd at the MTS Centre intimidating and the Jets took advantage. But what happened when those teams returned for the second or third time? Many won. The Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals all lost at first in Winnipeg but won subsequent games. And Winnipeg has lost its last three home games, including one against the Hurricanes that the Jets desperately needed to win to keep the club’s playoffs hopes alive. All of which could signal that the “MTS Centre effect” is wearing off. And that means the Jets might not be able to count on piling up so many home wins next season.

As for the players, Winnipeg has had some standout performances this season. Blake Wheeler, Evander Kane, Kyle Wellwood, Alexander Burmistrov and Zach Bogosian are enjoying career-best seasons in terms of points, along with role players like Tim Stapleton and Tanner Glass. Even Dustin Byfuglien, for all his weight, legal and on-ice roaming issues, ranks sixth in points among all NHL defencemen with 48 (although he is also a minus 7). Ondrej Pavelec has done well in goal, coming close to his best season. But there have been disappointments, such as Eric Fehr and Antti Miettinen, as well as high-paid non-entities such as Nik Antropov and Ron Hainsey.

The Jets have a decent young core in Kane, Burmistrov and Bogosian, although each has issues such as Kane’s frequent lack of creativity and Burmistrov’s tendency to get bowled over. And there’s hope that the Jets’ top pick last year, Mark Scheifele, will develop into a true scorer.

But Jets management has some tough choices coming up. Kane and Pavelec are restricted free agents this summer and will likely be looking for big raises. The team has nine other free agents pending, meaning management will either have to boost the payroll, among the lowest in the league, or move some players.

For now, though, that’s all far off and Jets fans are still revelling in the fact they have an NHL team to cheer for or trash. As season-ticket holder Jeremy Torrie put it: “Winnipeg feels like a major-league city again.”

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