The Winnipeg Jets have high hopes for the new National Hockey League season, but in order to challenge for a playoff birth in the Eastern Conference in 2013, they'll need to get off to a flying start.
Last season, the Jets (37-35-10, 84 points) finished in 11th place in the Eastern and eight points out of the final playoff spot. A contributing factor to the team missing the postseason was its slow start. Winnipeg stumbled to a record of 1-5-1 after six games and was 5-9-3 after 17 contests. In a shortened season, a similar start would be disastrous.
The Jets can chart a new course to the playoffs when they host the Ottawa Senators at the MTS Centre on Saturday, Jan. 19 in the season opener for both teams. Last season, the Senators (41-31-10, 92 points) finished No. 8 in the East and qualified for the postseason.
For the Jets to jump the Sens, or finish anywhere in the top eight in the East, Evander Kane (team-high 30 goals last season) and goalie Ondrej Pavelec (29-28-9 in 2011-12) must lead the way. Both player signed new contract prior to the lockout and will be expected to live up to them. The Jets also are expecting major contributions from Blake Wheeler (team-best 64 points), offensive defenseman Dustin Byfuglien (53 points) and experienced two-way center Olli Jokinen. The rest of the pieces must fall into place.
The Jets will need production from almost everyone on the roster in order to compete in the Southeast division, no less the stacked Eastern Conference. Winnipeg especially needs steady play on the blue line, which for the time being is missing budding star Zach Bogosian (wrist surgery). The defensively-challenged Jets allowed an NHL fifth-worst 246 goals and was ranked No. 24 in penalty kill percentage in 2011-12.
Winning their home opener won't remedy all their problems, or give the Jets a clear path to the playoffs, but it's a good place to start.