It was a long wait, but the NHL is ready to make an official return to Winnipeg.
Winnipeg will host an NHL regular-season game for the first time in 15 years today, as the latest version of the Jets open the 2011-12 campaign against the Montreal Canadiens.
For the first time since the original Jets flew south to Phoenix after the 1995-96 season, the city of Winnipeg has an NHL franchise 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 is 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.
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 miss the start of the year with a shoulder issue. Washington also added forward Brett MacLean on Thursday, picking up the 32nd overall pick of the 2007 draft on waivers from Phoenix.
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.
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.
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.
While the Jets await the dawn of a new era of NHL hockey, the Canadiens are simply trying to bounce back from a season-opening loss. Montreal was dealt a 2-0 loss in Toronto on Thursday, as James Reimer made 32 saves to spur the Maple Leafs to a win over their bitter rivals. It was the third straight year the NHL's oldest rivalry played as the season opener for both teams and the Maple Leafs have won the last two.
Carey Price allowed two goals on 18 shots for the Canadiens.
The Canadiens were hoping to erase the memory of a first-round postseason loss to eventual Stanley Cup-champion Boston, but went 0-for-5 on the power play and let up a shorthanded goal to Matthew Lombardi 33 seconds into the middle period that counted as the game-winner.
"When you get shut out, it's always somewhat frustrating," said Canadiens forward Mike Cammalleri. "But I thought we did some really good things. The second period we had some lets downs, but I thought overall I felt pretty good about our game."
Montreal hopes centerman Blair Betts can make his Habs debut tonight after sitting out the opener with a lower body issue. Betts was picked up off waivers from Philadelphia on Wednesday and is expected to play a key penalty- killing role for the Canadiens.
The Canadiens will play their home opener in their next outing, as they'll open a three-game homestand Thursday against Calgary.
Montreal split four games with Atlanta last season and the Canadiens have taken six of 11 overall in this series.