Winnipeg Jets Hope For Flight Upgrade In The Southeast

CHARLOTTE, NC - SEPTEMBER 25: Goalie David Aebischer #1 and Mark Stuart #5 of the Winnipeg Jets protect the goal from of Alexei Ponikarovsky #23 of the Carolina Hurricanes in the third period during an NHL pre-season hockey game September 25, 2011 in Charlotte, North Carolina. Carolina won 4-0 over Winnipeg. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)

The Winnipeg Jets retained their best players from 2011-12 and added two key free agent forwards, but is it enough to climb in the Southeast Division?

The Winnipeg Jets v. 2.0 spent their inaugural season in Winnipeg as what was supposed to be just temporary residents in the Southeast Division, a consequence of their late relocation from Atlanta in summer 2011.

But the NHLPA essentially blocked the NHL's post-Atlanta realignment plan -- an early salvo in what has become a serious labor war that, the Jets acknowledge, threatens the start of the 2012-13 season. So this season, whenever it starts, will see the Jets continuing their nomadic roaming as a Central Time team in an Eastern Time division.

It's not exactly quantifiable how much this travel affects the team, but it does keep the Jets as one of the most heavily miles-logged teams in the league. (As On The Forecheck's annual Super Schedule shows, the Jets will travel roughly 3,000 more miles this season but have fewer back-to-back game nights.)

Regardless of the road challenges -- the Jets relied heavily on a 23-13-5 home record last year -- the team's task is to somehow improve on a fourth-place finish in a division where most of its rivals improved over the summer. While the Jets didn't add a Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin like the fifth-place Hurricanes did, Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff did add some pieces that should help.

Olli Jokinen is on the down half of his career, but the free agent center signed away from the Calgary Flames can still provide secondary and powerplay scoring. Likewise winger Alexei Ponikarovsky, an effective 5-on-5 forward signed away after splitting last season with the Hurricanes and the Stanley Cup finalist New Jersey Devils. The two aren't top-line players, but they upgrade the Jets' top nine forwards and should give coach Claude Noel more matchup options.

They join a group that largely returns its best players and top scorers from 2011-12, including key defenseman Tobias Enstrom, who signed a five-year, $28.75 million contract extension that kicks in next summer, as well as the underrated center Kyle Wellwood, who at one point looked to be headed elsewhere. However, their other key blueliner, Zach Bogosian, will miss four to six months thanks to late-summer wrist surgery.

Also still in the fold, though not signed, is 30-goal scorer and restricted free agent Evander Kane, the subject of rumors all summer that alternate between a pending long-term deal to anonymous reports that he prefers a new destination.

While Kane's contract situation is unsettling, he's healthy and he's Jets property. It's Bogosian's injury that really casts a shadow over the season, as he logs the tough minutes for the Jets and his absence might put too much pressure on Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien, whose offensive forays often depend on the smarts of his better blueline teammates.

Finally, in the goal crease the Jets made two moves that carry some risk: They re-signed Ondrej Pavelec to a five-year deal with a $3.9 million cap hit -- a healthy commitment to a goalie of his pedigree -- and they brought in Al Montoya to replace Chris Mason in the backup role. Montoya is a curious case, drafted high but blocked in the Rangers and Coyotes organizations. He had a nice spell in his best opportunity with the Islanders in 2010-11, but he struggled in the backup role last season, causing the Islanders to let him walk.

All told, the Jets made some good moves to upgrade their squad for 2012-13, but were they enough to improve their lot as prairie members of the Southeast Division? Let's just hope there is an actual NHL season to help us find out.

For more on the Jets, check in with Arctic Ice Hockey.

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