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2011-12 Winnipeg Jets Preview

For the first time since the original Jets flew south to 96 season, the city of Winnipeg will have an NHL club to call its own.

Atlanta's loss was Winnipeg's gain this summer, as the ownership group known as True North Sports and Entertainment bought the struggling Thrashers for a reported $170 million and paid the league a $60 million relocation fee to move the franchise to Manitoba.

The club will of course be called the Jets, even if the Phoenix Coyotes still lay claim to the original Winnipeg franchise's history. The new Jets, meanwhile, inherit a Thrashers franchise that qualified for the playoffs just once in its 11 seasons as an NHL club.

Playing out of the MTS Centre in downtown Winnipeg, the Jets should learn to cherish their home dates in 2011-12 because travel is going to be a nightmare for the club. The league is expected to re-align after this season, but for now the Winnipeg club will remain in Atlanta's Southeast Division, meaning the Jets' closest divisional opponent will be located over 1,500 miles away in Washington, D.C.

Still, at least the Jets will not be devoid of talent this year as the ex- Thrashers club features players like Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien, who both helped Chicago win a Stanley Cup title in 2010. Winnipeg also gets 20- year-old winger Evander Kane, the fourth overall pick in the 2009 draft who could be poised to take over as the Jets' franchise player.

Of course, the team also has new management, including at the general manager and head coach positions, where Kevin Cheveldayoff and Claude Noel take over for Rick Dudley and Craig Ramsay, respectively.

Cheveldayoff will have the important task of evaluating his roster this season, and although the Jets won't come out an say it, making the playoffs will be secondary this year to finding out where they are. Unless Winnipeg surprises and is still in the playoff race come February, we could see the Jets become sellers as Cheveldayoff tries to mold the club in his image.

FORWARDS - The Jets didn't do a great deal to alter an offense that ranked 20th in the league last season, with solid two-way forward Eric Fehr standing out as the biggest addition and even Fehr will likely miss the start of the year with a shoulder issue.

Bryan Little projects as the club's top centerman and will likely anchor the first line with captain Ladd on the left wing and Blake Wheeler on the opposite side.

Ladd was Atlanta's leading scorer in 2010-11, pacing the club with 29 goals and 59 points. However, the club's next two top-scoring players were defensemen Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom.

Little followed Ladd in forward scoring for the Thrashers last year, recording 48 points on 18 goals and 30 assists. Meanwhile, Wheeler, who came over at the trade deadline in a deal with Boston, impressed with 17 points (7 goals, 10 assists) in just 23 games with the Thrashers.

A second line featuring Nik Antropov at center, Eric Fehr at right wing and Kane on the other side will likely go as far as the talented left winger takes it. As a 19-year-old sophomore in 2010-11, Kane improved on his rookie totals with 19 goals and 23 assists over 72 games.

Antropov has good hands for a man who stands at 6-foot-6, but he struggles with inconsistency. The big Kazakh pivot had 24 goals and 43 assists for 67 points in 2009-10, but dropped to 41 points (16g, 25a) in an identical 76-game run last year.

Fehr, who was picked up in an offseason trade, had 10 goals and 10 assists in just 52 games for the Caps in 2010-11. He had 21 goals and 39 points for Washington two years ago and that's the type of production Winnipeg will expect from Fehr this season.

Alexander Burmistrov, who will still be 19 years old when the season starts, will likely get a chance to fill the third centerman spot after posting six goals and 14 assists in 74 games as a rookie last year. The Russian was selected by Atlanta with the eighth overall pick of the 2010 draft.

Patrice Cormier, a second-round pick by New Jersey in 2008, could also get more minutes after a 21-game stint as a rookie in 2010-11. Cormier was one of the players acquired by the Thrashers when they dealt superstar winger Ilya Kovalchuk to the Devils in 2009-10.

DEFENSE - Byfuglien made a triumphant return to the blue line for Atlanta in 2010-11, but his offseason has been quite the opposite.

Byfuglien started his career as a defenseman in Chicago before getting switched to right wing. He scored 11 goals as a forward for the Blackhawks in their championship season of 2010, but after getting dealt to Atlanta with Ladd, the Thrashers surprised everyone by moving him back to defense. The rest is history, as Byfuglien led all NHL defensemen with 20 goals and finished fourth in points with 53.

However, this summer in his home state of Minnesota, the 26-year-old was arrested on suspicion of boating while intoxicated. Byfuglien's next court date is on October 21, and it will be interesting to see if the legal issue affects his play on the ice in 2011-12.

Enstrom was no slouch in 2010-11 either, finishing sixth in the NHL in defenseman scoring with 51 points (10g, 41a). Together with Byfuglien, the duo is one of the most dangerous defensive pairings in the entire NHL. The tandem also provided 14 of the club's 53 power-play goals last year to help the club finish 12th in the league in PP efficiency.

The second unit features another potential offensive stud in 21-year-old Zach Bogosian, who was the third overall pick in the 2008 draft. The American had 23 points in 2009-10, but dropped off to five goals and 12 assists for Atlanta last year.

Bogosian's likely partner is fellow American Ron Hainsey, who has seen a sharp decline in his offensive production over the last three years. He posted a career-best 39 points with Atlanta in 2008-09, but dropped to 26 points the following year before notching just 19 points (3g, 16a) in 82 games last year.

The Jets will also have Mark Stuart, who was traded from Boston to Atlanta last February in the deal that also landed Wheeler. Stuart, 27, is a stay-at- home guy and had two goals, four assists in 54 games between the Bruins and Thrashers last year.

Johnny Oduya, who was also acquired from New Jersey in the Kovalchuk trade, is also expected to be in the regular rotation, although the signing of veteran Randy Jones this summer could push both he and Stuart for playing time.

GOALTENDING - Ondrej Pavelec has been steadily improving in net over the last few years, and the 24-year-old enters this season as the club's likely No. 1 option over veteran Chris Mason.

Pavelec, who Atlanta picked 41st overall in 2005, appeared in a career-high 58 games last season and finished with a 21-23-9 record to go with a solid .914 save percentage and 2.73 goals-against average.

Mason provides a solid insurance policy should Pavelec take a step backwards in 2011-12. The 35-year-old is in the final season of a two-year, $3.7 million pact and will be eager to improve upon a dreadful 2010-11 that saw him go 13-13-3 with a 3.39 GAA and .892 save percentage.

WHEN ALL IS SAID AND DONE - Fans in Winnipeg are obviously elated to once again have an NHL club to call their own, but that doesn't mean the play on the ice will bring about a similar feeling of euphoria. The offense has some decent parts, while the defense and a No. 1 goaltender have the potential to be great. Still, playing in a division of teams primarily from the southwestern U.S. is going to take its toll over the course of an 82-game season. A run to the postseason in 2011-12 would be magical, but realistically, anything other than a last-place finish in the Southeast would qualify as a success.