The Jets remained a factor in the Eastern Conference playoff race until only two weeks before the regular season's conclusion in 2011-2012. Though outmatched from a talent perspective many (most, even) nights, this second iteration of Manitoba's NHL squad fought hard into April, showing the hockey world their determination to make the historic, homecoming season one worth remembering.
Even the Winnipeg fans seemed not content with simply having a team back in town; despite lifting their squad to what was almost certainly the league's biggest home-ice advantage (the team was 23--13--5 at home and 14--22--5 on the road,) Jets fans would, on occasion, let rain down the "boos" at MTS Centre when they felt that the home team was putting forth a disappointing effort.
And yet, despite the occasional jeer from the stands or a lackluster 37--35--10 record at season's end, looking forward to 2012-2013, there is much to cheer about in Winnipeg.
Despite the Jets' front office talking a big game in 2011-2012 about slow, sustainable development from within the farm system and the draft, the Winnipeg brass took a left turn this off-season by signing a big-name free agent in Olli Jokinen. A $9 million deal for two years runs contrary to Winnipeg's supposed commitment to long-term talent investment, which in turn raises questions about what the real plan in Manitoba is. Jokinen's arrival to MTS Centre suggests the GM's office is feeling the pressure, either from ownership or elsewhere, to win now, which can only help the team's overall outlook for 2012-2013.
The Big Guns
Dustin Byfuglien (D): Overcoming a slow start to the season and then an injury to his knee that sidelined him throughout December and January, Byfuglien cemented himself as one of the league's most dominant blueline-defenseman during the second half of 2011-2012. Throwing out his slow start in October, Buff finished the season with 49 points in 55 games. Now that his legal woes from summer of 2011 are finally behind him, expect "Big Buff" to rack up the hits and shots-on-goal in 2012-2013 much the same way he did last season.
Blake Wheeler (RW): Winnipeg's leader in points last season with 64, Wheeler will be motivated to outdo himself in 2012-2013, the final year on his current contract. He led the team in assists with 47 and also chipped in a surprising 55 penalty minutes. Having missed only three games in his last seasons, consider "Wheels" among the most reliable sources of assists in most leagues after the premier set-up men have been snagged. He's shown great chemistry with Evander Kane and Bryan Little upon Winnipeg's top line.
Evander Kane (C): Kane enters his fourth professional season with all the right kinds of momentum: 2012 saw No. 9 record his highest goals total so far in his young career with 30. He will likely be playing for a new contract and the 21-year old was able to finish the second half of last year injury-free after struggling with concussion symptoms in December and January. Though Kane has yet to fully realize his potential as a fourth-overall draft selection, the Vancouver native is trending in the right direction. Bump him up a few spots in keeper leagues, and his 53 penalty minutes make a nice bonus for those in leagues that reward sin bin points.
On the Rise
Alex Burmistrov (C): "Low-risk, high-upside" neatly summarizes Burmistrov's outlook for 2012-2013. You likely won't need to expend a high draft pick to secure the young Russian for your roto squad, and, if year three proves to be the breakout campaign for this 2010 first-round selection, you will have struck fantasy gold. Burmistrov played well early in the season, but fell off much, finishing the season with 13 goals, 28 points and many stretches of being invisible despite playing 76 games.
Bryan Little (C): Little's consistency since 2008 has been admirable, notching between 34 and 51 points in each of his last four campaigns. When you factor in the time the Alberta native missed due to injury this past Winter, 2011-2012 was on par with his breakout 2008-2009 season, as Little posted 46 points last year. If your team can withstand the hit Little delivers in the plus-minus column, he makes for a solid pick in the later rounds with his place alongside Evander Kane and Blake Wheeler.
Two to Watch
Andrew Ladd (LW): Having taken part in 163 of a possible 164 games over his past two seasons with Atlanta/Winnipeg, "the Captain" has been a steady source of goals with 57 over that span, also cracking 50 points the last two years. Don't expect 40 scores anytime soon, but so long as you can secure the veteran forward in a mid-to-late round, there is value to be had here.
Nik Antropov (C): Antropov strung together some impressive hot streaks in 2011-2012, proving that the 12-year veteran still has some hockey left in him, notching 35 points last season in 69 games. Though he will likely not approach the offensive output he totaled in 2009-2010 again in his career, fantasy owners who don't mind rolling the dice on No. 80's hip flexor (he missed the World Championships in favor of letting the injury heal in time for 2012-2013) could score some late-round value by drafting the 32 year-old.
Ondrej Pavelec (G): Among the league's top-25 goaltenders with respect to minutes played 2011-2012, Pavelec's save percentage, .906, and goals-against average of 2.91 left a little to be desired. He posted a 29-28-9 record on a team that struggled defensively at times. Though the Jets inked the Czech netminder to a five year deal worth $19.5 million in June, do not expect Winnipeg's commitment to his usage moving forward to translate into stellar numbers in this coming season. Remember his name after most of the league's starting goaltenders have been selected.
Grant Clitsome (D): Clitsome generated some buzz around the Columbus front office in 2010-2011 when he posted an impressive 19 points in 31 games as a second-year pro who had grown accustomed to spending more time in the minors than with the big club. Yet, when he fell far short of that production in 2011-2012, the Blue Jackets released the Ontario native to waivers. Upon being claimed by the Jets, Clitsome did little to silence his doubters, registering just three points over the season's final twelve games. Though his usage in Manitoba was much higher than it was in Ohio, do not expect the 27 year-old to make a large offensive impact in 2012-2013.
Hot (or Not?) Prospects
Ben Maxwell (C): After notching three points in a two-game stint with the Jets toward the end of the regular season, Maxwell, who spent the majority of 2011-2012 playing for the club's AHL affiliate in St. John's, signed a new contract with the organization in July. In long-term keeper league or dynasty formats, the 24-year old is on the short list of players within the Winnipeg farm system to monitor. He put up 25 points in 43 AHL games last year and has played 47 games with Montreal, Anaheim and the Winnipeg/Atlanta franchise during his NHL career.
Patrice Cormier (C): Cormier spelled some injured Jet forwards in 2011-2012, but his presence never resonated on the stat sheet to any great length. Expect the lone piece left on the Jets from the Ilya Kovalchuk trade to log a healthy dose of big-club minutes in 2012-2013, but be sure only to draft him in a long-term prospect capacity.
Spencer Machacek (RW): For owners in dynasty or long-term keeper formats, Machacek is on the very short list of players within the Winnipeg farm system worth keeping an eye on. His tallying seven points in six NHL games as part of a late-March call-up in 2012 certainly caught the eye of the Jets front office, making his chances at securing more minutes with the big club in 2012-2013 very likely. Remember his name in the later rounds of keeper leagues.