Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Slow, steady wins race, eventually

Club must build for future carefully, because competition will be tougher

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DENVER -- Times are tough enough for the Winnipeg Jets and their playoff aspirations right now, but a look into the future is far more daunting.

The upstart Jets have kept themselves in the Eastern Conference playoff picture to date and entered Tuesday's action just two points out of a post-season berth. A solid run at home in the month of December has seen the Jets surge above the .500 mark and hang in just on the outside of the playoff scene.

 

There's reason to hope the romance of the Jets' first season back in Winnipeg could heat up and give the fans more than just a season steeped in nostalgia and rebirth to celebrate. The playoffs would be an unexpected but welcome payoff for the faithful that have sold out their building for years to come and made it rock on game nights.

In the watered down East this season there's a constant changing of chairs in the lower end of the conference and the Jets haven't faded as yet. Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec has been brilliant, and buoyed by a home crowd that most certainly gives them an edge, the Jets have over-achieved when playing in Winnipeg. If they can find a way to keep that going and add a little more mustard to their road record -- they could find a way.

Next season, however, the Jets will be playing in a new and yet to be unnamed conference that will house Detroit, Columbus, Nashville, St. Louis, Chicago, Minnesota and Dallas. Considering the Red Wings, Blackhawks and Wild are among the best teams in the Western Conference there will be heightened competition for post-season life.

The top four teams in the conference will qualify for the playoffs and under that alignment, the Jets wouldn't be part of the conversation at this point. Winnipeg and its 37 points would sit seventh and be a full eight points out of the hunt.

The Jets' new conference is likely to be tough for some time. Detroit is always a contender and the Blackhawks are set up for another decade of dominance. Take two spots out of the equation for some time and leave the other six to squabble over the remaining two berths.

The Predators have found a formula that works for them as an organization and are the most stable of the rest. They've made the playoffs in four of the last five years and aren't going anywhere.

The Wild have surged this season, but it's premature for a long-term prognosis. Columbus, Dallas and St. Louis are also franchises with questions.

That leaves the Jets. They're a young group of players and a fresh management team. It's been fun to get caught up in the excitement of this season's playoff talk, but paying a price to get in this season can't be so expensive that it derails the plans for tomorrow.

The long-term future for the Jets is going to be difficult. They need to gird themselves for next season and beyond and a little fling this spring isn't worth overspending.

The Jets have assets in terms of young players on the rise, salary cap room and prospects on the farm. Continuing down that road of developing from within is the only path the Jets can realistically follow. There will be no summer marquee free-agent signings to bail out impulsive trade-deadline shopping.

A late-season push would be exciting and maybe even temporarily satisfying. But the sins of today will have to be paid for down the line. With the way the future is looking for the Jets, slow and steady more than ever is the right course.

 

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 28, 2011 C3

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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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