The Stanley Cup playoffs begin today without the Winnipeg Jets for the second year in a row since the team was moved here from Atlanta. Many diehard fans are already suffering withdrawal along with the disappointment. There are reasons for optimism, however, as well as gratitude for the last two seasons.
The Jets delivered a season of frequently entertaining, nail-biting hockey. Sure, there were wipeouts and games best forgotten, but many of the contests were close-fought affairs in a league where even the weakest teams mustered the will to defeat the strongest.
The fact is that the NHL today is highly competitive and the calibre of play has never been better. The Jets are in that league in all respects, but it was unrealistic to expect management and the coaching staff to miraculously turn around an uneven team in just two years.
Even then, the team came within a few points of clinching a playoff berth, despite multiple injuries to key players. But there's no cigar for close.
There is no doubt, however, that the owners and managers are not the type to settle for perennial disappointment, like the Toronto Maple Leafs. Proud and highly competitive, they seem determined to craft a team capable of reaching for the brass ring, but it will require some serious surgery first, and a little more money.
Team owner Mark Chipman has said his long-term goal is to win the Stanley Cup, which he thinks is possible as a result of the new collective bargaining agreement that will level the revenue and spending fields across the league in the long term.
The organization has several factors in its favour in the short term.
The team did not spend its full salary cap this year, and it has room to increase spending next year, while other teams will have to scale back spending because they will be over next year's limit of $64 million.
That means some good players should become available, while the Jets also own several unrestricted free agents who could easily be traded.
As usual, there are numerous variables that determine the strength or failure of a team. Ultimately, however, management needs to craft a collection of players committed to the pursuit of greatness, one of those ethereal qualities that money can't buy and talent alone can't create.