Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

This time we won't be starting from scratch

Little chance of this crew going winless 30 straight

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Twenty-nine wins over two years. A mere nine wins in one horrid season.

That was the shameful mark of the expansion Winnipeg Jets when they merged into the NHL after those glorious WHA days.

Winnipeg hockey fans won't be getting a crew of world-beaters when the Atlanta Thrashers shed their old skin for a new name and colours but they won't be treated to the torment and humiliation of life with an expansion team.

The current group of Thrashers is not a Stanley Cup contender. But there's also little chance of this group going winless for 30 straight, as the 1980-81 Jets did in a season that ranks among the worst in professional sports history. They finished with nine wins, 57 losses and 14 ties for 32 points.

There are some things to like about this club and it's not unreasonable to suggest they are on the verge of making the playoffs, especially in the weaker Eastern Conference.

Last season saw the Thrashers finish 12th in the East with a 34-36-12 mark for 80 points, which was 13 back of the eighth and final playoff spot.

Whether it's Rick Dudley calling the shots as GM or a fresh True North Sports and Entertainment hire, the focus will be on reaching the playoffs and being quick about it.

True North won't want to kill the buzz associated with returning to the NHL by having the team languish in the cellar. They'll want to immediately establish themselves as a winning organization much like they did with the Manitoba Moose in the AHL and old IHL.

The Moose never won a title but they were often in the hunt and the playoffs were an expectation every season.

The building blocks for a stronger NHL team are already in place.

Goalie Ondrej Pavelec is perhaps on the verge of establishing himself as a 60-game horse upon which a season can be pinned.

Big Buff, as Dustin Byfuglien has come to be known, is a unique talent with a combination of speed, size and skill that can take over games and even a playoff series, as last year's Vancouver Canucks can attest. Byfuglien was a key performer in the Chicago Blackhawks' run to the Stanley Cup before being dispatched to Atlanta in a salary cap purge.

Byfuglien's commitment to fitness has been questioned throughout his career but if he can make that breakthrough he could be an elite player.

Veteran Andrew Ladd needs to be re-signed but he's a fine captain and a Stanley Cup winner with the Hawks.

Defenceman Tobias Enstrom is a fine player able to move the puck quickly and with care. Maybe a touch small, but he's a useful player on any NHL roster.

Young Evander Kane had 19 goals as a 19-year-old last season and 14 the season before. He's a big winger with a nose for the net and the drive to go to the hard places and Winnipeggers will love watching him play.

There are plenty of holes to fill but with the seventh pick overall in this year's draft the organization is well positioned to continue fleshing out the roster. The franchise is a little light on picks with just five this year, falling in the first, third, fourth, sixth and seventh rounds.

The bottom line is this team is young and in the middle of a rebuild.

How fast and how well that is done will be up to management.

Let the second-guessing begin.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 31, 2011 C1

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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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