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'A lot of us felt we were a playoff team': Wheeler

Wheeler thought Jets would be legitimate contenders

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Blake Wheeler had lofty goals in October.

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Blake Wheeler had lofty goals in October.

DESPITE switching to a tougher division it seems many Winnipeg Jets were reasonably confident of making the playoffs -- or at least making a decent run at the post-season.

So the results thus far have been quite the eye-opener.

"I think the expectations have risen every year," forward Blake Wheeler said before the club embarked on its most recent road trip. "We took a step last year and we just missed the playoffs. I think a lot of us felt we were a playoff team.

"And now, I think this is the best group we've had since we've been here, so I think the expectations have risen pretty linearly since we've been here."

The Jets 2.0 have been back in Winnipeg since relocating from Atlanta in 2011.

"(The scrutiny) comes with the territory," Wheeler said. "It's a market that cares about the product on the ice and they're very passionate. They're very enthusiastic when you're winning and very enthusiastic when you're losing, it's just a different kind."

Once-rare game tickets at the MTS Centre are available, and those who attend have booed their 16-18-5 team for inconsistent play that has the club sitting at or near the bottom of the Central Division.

Armchair general managers have also called for roster changes, while likable head coach Claude Noel has had his job security questioned.

And the fans aren't the only ones voicing their frustration. Players are fed up with looking for the positives in each loss.

"It's what you do out on the ice. You can blow smoke as much as you want in the media," right-winger Wheeler told reporters after the Jets lost a sixth straight game at home on Dec. 14.

The airing out of frustrations in Winnipeg is something new. When the Jets were resurrected in 2011, fans enthusiastically embraced the return of the NHL after a 15-year absence.

Thirteen thousand season tickets with a minimum three-year commitment were snapped up, and unlucky fans paid $50 to join a wait list.

The team was loudly cheered by 15,000 grateful admirers at home games and were even given a standing ovation when the inaugural season ended with an overtime loss and no playoff berth.

After last season's NHL lockout ended, fans were just happy to head back to the rink and their adoration continued despite another campaign without post-season action.

But in this third season, cracks are starting to show.

When the home winless streak finally ended with a 5-2 victory over Florida on Dec. 20, there was relief but no fist-pumping as the team headed out on the road for what ended up being losses to Vancouver and Edmonton before its three-day Christmas holiday.

Jets defenceman Zach Bogosian got a different view of fans when he recently missed 15 games with a groin injury.

Did he feel the winds of change while sitting in the press box?

"It's a touchy subject," Bogosian said. "They're usually pretty loud, but sometimes if the team is not playing as well as we should, some people get unhappy."

Behind his mask, goalie Ondrej Pavelec hasn't noticed more unforgiving fans this season.

"They cheer for us every time," he said. "Sometimes we play bad, we don't deserve it and they're still there. I don't see any difference."

He and Wheeler haven't been sought out by fault-finding fans.

"The people are all very respectful," Wheeler said. "When people see us out and about, they're happy to see us out in the community.

"The wins and losses are obviously very important, but at the same time we're still people. There's nobody that wants it more than we do in this locker-room. It's just a matter of going out there and doing it."

Noel acknowledged fans have higher expectations this season.

"I think we've had that sense for a while," he said. "After the first year, we had that sense that they would like more performance and the honeymoon is over.

"We don't sit here and take our fan base for granted. They expect us to work, and they should, and perform."

Prior to Winnipeg's loss to the lowly Sabres in Buffalo earlier this month, Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff revealed he's felt heat from critics.

"If you're able to find a way to improve, then you try to act on it," he said. "But change doesn't always equate to improvement.

"Change can certainly placate phone calls, emails on the different venues out there, but that doesn't necessarily mean that's the proper direction to go."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 26, 2013 C3

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