Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

It's one last gasp for this group of Jets

Playoff appearances can be few, far between

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THOSE in the game, those who have lived it, know all too well pro hockey is a 'change business.'

And so as Mark Stuart looks around the Winnipeg Jets dressing room and sees old pals and new friends -- many of whom he has battled with this season and last -- he understands what feels comfy and cosy right now can also change in a nanosecond.

Teammates come and go. Coaches change. GMs change. And everybody is vulnerable to be moved.

Case in point: one day in February of 2011, Stuart was a member of the Boston Bruins, the next he was shipped to the Atlanta Thrashers, along with Blake Wheeler, for Rich Peverley and Boris Valabik. That the Bruins would go on to win the Stanley Cup just a few months later still isn't lost on Stuart or Wheeler to this day.

All of this is to reinforce why players are so keen on living in the moment and not dwelling on what is in the rear-view mirror or fixating beyond anything but the next game.

And it's why the Jets, to a man, are so fixated on their six-game push to a possible playoff spot.

"Every year you want to take a run," Stuart said Monday. "But there's something you realize as a player: the opportunity to make the playoffs just isn't always there. Sometimes guys can make it two-three years in a row and then they might not make it for another 10. You've got to take advantage of the opportunities whenever you can get them to get in, because once you get in anything can happen.

"This group, we're right there. It's a matter of grasping it because you never know, right? It's fun coming to the rink, it's fun playing games, it's fun being around these guys. As a group we've really come together and meshed well. But we all want to keep that going."

That's been a common theme in Jetville for the last couple of years in Winnipeg. The core of players genuinely seem to like hanging out together. There have been no whispers of cliques or infighting, no rumours of deep-rooted personality clashes that threaten the team resolve.

But there's also this: of the current roster, nine players are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents this summer -- Nik Antropov, Kyle Wellwood, Mike Santorelli, Antti Miettinen, Aaron Gagnon, Ron Hainsey, Grant Clitsome, Derek Meech and Al Montoya.

An additional nine are restricted free agents, some of them due substantial raises -- Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, Alex Burmistrov, Eric Tangradi, Anthony Peluso, Zach Bogosian, Zach Redmond, Paul Postma and Arturs Kulda.

Currently, the Jets have just 11 players under contract for 2013-14, their salaries totalling $35,675,000 (via Capgeek.com).

In essence, that uncertainty about what the roster might look like come next October hammers home why the Jets' focus has to be on tonight's game versus Tampa Bay and nothing else. Right now it's about a six-game run because two weeks from now the wheels of change could be put into motion.

"The years go past really fast," said veteran Olli Jokinen. "My first year in L.A. (1997-98) the team made the playoffs. I never played, but at an early stage in your career you think there's going to be a next year. But you might not get a chance like this again next year. That's the message: every year is a new challenge.

"As you get older and the years go by... you don't want to waste any years. At the end of the day your personal numbers, goals or whatever don't really matter. It's about giving yourself a chance to win something and you need to get into the post-season to do that.

"We're right there," Jokinen added. "We have a lot of guys who have won in the past and have been in the post-season. But we also have some guys who have never been in the post-season. Still, most of the guys here have won or been in the playoffs at some level. They know how good it feels. We don't want to waste this year. We don't want to be saying in a couple of weeks we were close."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 16, 2013 D2

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