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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Days of living off potential are over

Time for Jets players to reward faith shown

Posted: 07/31/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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Now, they must win.

They're rich. They have both financial security and stability in the form of long-term contracts. They're the Winnipeg Jets of the present and the future. All that remains to be seen is if they're winners or losers.

For a few years now we've been hearing about the potential and talent of the core group of players with the Jets. They're no longer being paid for potential on entry-level deals or even second contracts. They're now getting the big dollars reserved for performance deals. Long-term contracts worth tens of millions of dollars.

Time to buy that house on the lake or fishing boat you've always dreamed about owning. It's also time to win.

Growth and development is great and it's a process that has to unfold on its own schedule. But sooner or later the finished product either arrives or it doesn't.

Patience from the fanbase isn't infinite and the Jets are a different product than our Blue Bombers. It's a lot easier for the Bombers at their price point to get away with endless futility. But the kind of money and yearly increases the Jets are asking of people puts the organization on a much different clock.

Winning in the NHL is obviously much harder than in the eight-team CFL and a Stanley Cup is a generational goal for most franchises.

'Jets fans may wish for a Stanley Cup but they can't demand one. They can, however, expect a playoff team and more'

Jets fans may wish for a Stanley Cup but they can't demand one. They can, however, expect a playoff team and more. That's well within their rights as a fanbase paying the freight.

So now, after having some time to cut their teeth, this group of players must begin to return the investment made by the organization and backed by the community.

The window for the Jets to be winners is open. The players need to take the next step and become a playoff team. Such a statement will push GM Kevin Cheveldayoff into the next mode of fine-tuning the roster and adding pieces to turn the Jets into contenders.

But right now it's all about the core players Cheveldayoff has locked up. It's time for them to earn their keep and become more than just a cute story out on the Prairie. It's time for them to become a serious hockey team.

Cheveldayoff has made the only bet available to him in this market and that's to lock up the young players previously collected by Atlanta Thrashers management.

Andrew Ladd, Ondrej Pavelec, Evander Kane, Toby Enstrom, Zach Bogosian, Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little were members of the organization when it arrived from Atlanta and Cheveldayoff has now systematically signed them all to long-term contracts.

That's a lot of talent signed for a lot of years. It's a fine foundation with more talented draft picks coming on board every year as Cheveldayoff continues to bolster the organization's depth.

If this franchise is to become a playoff team or contender, it will be on the backs of these players.

To date, Jets fans have been thrilled to cheer on these young players and crow about their potential. But that will change now. Fans are well aware of the money that's been handed to these players and will instinctively point to contracts if and when they become disgruntled.

Veterans such as Ron Hainsey and Nik Antropov constantly had their play held up against their healthy contracts. It's the nature of the dynamic and the Jets newest group of highly paid players will either thrive in their next stage of their hockey lives or they'll bear the full force of a dissatisfied Canadian hockey market.

The Jets, in essence, grew up this summer. Now we find out if they're ready to accept all that comes with the money they've been handed.

Word out of Minnesota, and there was photographic evidence Tuesday on Twitter, is Dustin Byfuglien has taken a step in his conditioning.

"Buff's going to be a big-time player this year," said teammate Blake Wheeler, after spending some time with the talented defenceman last week. "I'm glad he's on my team this year."

Byfuglien can't take the Jets to the next level all alone but if he's ready to fulfill the unlimited potential trapped inside his body and mind, Cheveldayoff may have acquired the best player available this summer without having spent a dime or going outside his own house.

Byfuglien has hovered around all-star status the last few seasons but hasn't been able to crack the ceiling from very good to great. Conditioning is the key to unlocking that mystery and the Jets have addressed that with their star player again and again.

If Cheveldayoff and coach Claude Noel have found a way to reach Byfuglien, there's no limit to what he can accomplish. By extension, Byfuglien could drag the Jets to some unexpected places.

So things are looking good in late July. The best they've looked since the Jets returned to Winnipeg.

But, and Cheveldayoff said this himself on Monday, the games are won on the ice.

True enough.

So bring on the games. And the expectations.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 31, 2013 D1

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