The cheering has stopped, the MTS Centre is empty and Winnipeg's NHL season is over. All that's left now is for the Winnipeg Jets' management, coaches and players to figure out what happens next.
There is much to ponder. Off the ice the Jets exceeded management's expectations in terms of fan support, ticket sales and revenue. On the ice the players failed to meet many expectations at all.
"No, it didn't," co-owner Mark Chipman said bluntly over the weekend when asked if the team lived up to his expectations in its first season. "While we have, clearly, a long-term plan to be successful in this league we also have a short-term plan and that was to make the playoffs. And we didn't do that so in that respect the season did not live up to my expectations."
The Jets not only didn't make the playoffs, the team didn't come close to head coach Claude Noel's objective of reaching 96 points, coming up 12 points short. In fact, the Jets have shown little progress in terms of point total from the club that moved to Winnipeg from Atlanta last year, finishing with about the same points in each of the last three seasons – 84, 80, 83. There are plenty of other issues as well. The team allowed 246 goals, among the worst in the league, played miserably on the road and managed just one win in the second game of a back-to-back all season.
"Everything externally was awesome," forward Blake Wheeler said Sunday just after the players packed up their equipment. "But internally we feel like we have more to give."
Wheeler's play was among the bright spots this season. He anchored the team's first line and had a career-high 64 points despite not scoring a goal in the first 18 games of the season. Other players hit career highs as well, including Evander Kane, Kyle Wellwood, Zach Bogosian and Alexander Burmistrov. But several were mediocre at best, such as Eric Fehr, Ron Hainsey and Antti Miettinen.
Some Jets have been good enough to merit selection to various national teams for this spring's world championships, including Kane and Andrew Ladd for Canada; possibly Ondrej Pavelec for the Czech Republic and Dustin Byfuglien for the United States (Bogosian was invited to join the U.S. team but declined to recover from injuries). But most will head back to various summer locales and contemplate their future.
"I don't want to leave," said backup goaltender Chris Mason, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Mason hopes to be back but noted that his lack of playing time, just 20 games, will be a factor in his decision. The Jets have 10 other pending free agents include Kane, Pavelec (both restricted free agents), Wellwood, Jim Slater and Tanner Glass (all unrestricted). Each professed a genuine eagerness to remain in Winnipeg.
Chipman said over the weekend that signing young players, such as Kane and Pavelec, will be a priority this off-season. He seemed lukewarm about spending a lot of money going after other free agents. "Without citing teams, there are teams that tried to do that last summer and are on the outside looking in this year," he said Saturday. The Jets are among the bottom third of the league in terms of payroll and it's unlikely Winnipeg will become big spenders any time soon. "I don't think you are going to see a dramatic shift in the way we go about things next year," Chipman said. "We're going to continue to be a young team and let young players develop."
For his part, Noel wouldn't go into specifics on Sunday about changes he wants to see, other than a new attitude among players. "We have to walk and expect to be in the playoffs. … That's where it starts," he said Sunday. "We don't want to be standing here in April next year going down this same path. How do we prevent that? How do we start that process? Things have to change."
Noel said his own coaching style will also change. He spent much of the season, his first full year as an NHL coach, giving players latitude and letting them figure things out. Not next season. "I was real patient this year, which was real good for me and I think it was good for our team," he said. "I'll be less patient next year."