Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Just not good enough -- yet

But Jets getting better, so let's see what off-season brings

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Acceptance had already begun to creep onto Bryan Little's face just seconds after Alex Ovechkin's empty-net goal had nestled into the mesh.

That same feeling likely began to sink in for Winnipeg Jets fans all across this province and beyond.

Little, who could be seen on the bench wearing a mix of emotions on his face, had played hard along with his teammates, but not well enough against a Washington Capitals team with more skill, depth and experience.

The 5-3 loss left the Jets still out of the playoff picture with just one regular-season game to play on their schedule. Only help from other places can rescue any chance of post-season games in Winnipeg.

Someone else will have to collapse for the Jets to get into the playoffs, and while all of Winnipeg would accept an insincere invitation to the dance, the team's presence there wouldn't change the fact they aren't quite ready.

The look on Little's face articulated emotions he likely couldn't and wouldn't put into words. It spoke of disappointment and frustration and a little bit of resignation. The Jets simply aren't as good as teams like the Capitals. Little may not be ready to admit it, but he must know it.

"They're more skilled than us," Jets coach Claude Noel said as part of his explanation of Tuesday's loss to Washington, summing up the reality of his team when matched against playoff-calibre competition.

Winnipeg's top four forwards -- Andrew Ladd, Little, Blake Wheeler and Evander Kane -- have combined for 150 points this season while the combination of the other 10 players they've used up front totalled just 82.

That's an average of less than 10 points per man from two-thirds of the second line as well as all of the third and fourth sets. That's not good enough.

There needs to be more push from the bottom of the lineup. More push from the farm.

Next season, the organization will welcome Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba and Adam Lowry, getting an immediate upgrade of young talent.

GM Kevin Cheveldayoff will have a lot of freedom in terms of contracts this summer and he'll be able to do some reshaping of the bottom end of his roster. He'll have to. The group he was left by the previous administration wasn't good enough, and so far, Cheveldayoff hasn't had much opportunity to retool. He will this off-season, with lots of salary-cap flexibility heading into an intriguing marketplace.

Most of the Jets' core pieces got better this season. Ladd, Little and Zach Bogosian took major steps. The same can be said to a lesser degree about Kane and Wheeler.

Now Cheveldayoff must get them more help.

Some players will have to go. Cheveldayoff needs to turn the soil this summer and bring in new answers to some of his problems.

Noel got more out of this roster this year than he did the year before. There have been some obstacles -- or built-in excuses, depending on one's angle -- that won't be in play next season. No franchise transfer, no lockout and no shortened season, just a regular off-season followed by a training camp and an 82-game schedule. It will be time for Noel to be judged.

Winnipeg has gotten better and if by some turn of fate they get into the playoffs, there will be tangible evidence to support that assertion.

Even if they don't, they will have played all 48 games of this schedule in meaningful circumstances.

This will have been more than a light rapping on the door.

The Jets banged hard on it and if the great Houston Oilers coach Bum Phillips were around, his authentic "next year we'll kick the son of a (expletive) in" speech might resonate well with this group.

The best, Jets fans are forced to hope, is yet to come.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 24, 2013 C3

History

Updated on Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 7:35 AM CDT: replaces photo, adds video

9:33 AM: corrects typo

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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