SPORTS

Jets optimisitic about the future despite brief playoff run

04/24/2015 05:26 EDT | Updated 07/23/2015 07:59 EDT
WINNIPEG - The Winnipeg Jets packed their bags Friday with feelings of optimism easing the sting of being swept out of the NHL playoffs.

While players were still disappointed the Anaheim Ducks ended their season in Game 4 on Wednesday, there was still a sense of accomplishment at making the playoffs and excitement for the future.

"This time the last few years, I was mentally, physically drained from the experience," forward Blake Wheeler said. "We were a team that was kind of pulling in a million different directions and it was a frustrating thing to be a part of.

"Now, the resolve we had just to get to where we got to, we were in the toughest division in hockey and we thrived, so it’s a completely different feeling.

"There’s a lot of optimism about being a part of this organization now and I think going forward we've set the benchmark of what it is to be a Winnipeg Jet. Going forward, there’s going to be high expectations for everyone that’s on this team."

The Jets made the playoffs for the first time since the franchise moved to Winnipeg from Atlanta in 2011, and it marked the first NHL playoff games for the city since 1996.

It was achieved despite early doubts about the team's potential, injuries to key players, question marks about goaltending and hot and cold streaks during the season.

"Of course it would have been nice if we would have won the Stanley Cup, but let’s be realistic," goalie Ondrej Pavelec said. "We’re going step by step. We made a huge, huge step forward and we’ll see what happens next year."

While Wheeler said he was healthy heading into the summer, that’s not the case for many of his teammates.

Captain Andrew Ladd revealed he found out Thursday he has a sports hernia and that’s what had been bothering him since December. He’ll see a specialist on Monday and may need surgery.

Defenceman Jacob Trouba wore a brace around his left hand and said he broke a bone in Game 2, an injury that only allowed him to grip his stick with two fingers.

Head coach Paul Maurice said eight players competed with "fairly significant" injuries.

That included centre Bryan Little and defenceman Dustin Byfuglien, who both had rib dislocations late in the season that healed, but were not 100 per cent, he said.

Mathieu Perreault initially suffered a high ankle sprain and then was hit from behind, ripping ligaments and bone from his hand. He could play with it, “but he felt it,” Maurice said.

When he looked back over the season at all the adversity the players overcame and the way they bought into his teachings and played hard, it was a special journey.

"I had more fun coaching this team than any other year I’ve ever had," Maurice said.

His next task is going to be "really, really brutally honest" in his assessment of each player and deliver that to general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.

Cheveldayoff has to deal with nine potential unrestricted free agents, including veteran forwards Drew Stafford and Michael Frolik, as well four who could be restricted free agents. Byfuglien and Ladd are also going into the final year of their contracts.

"I like the group in there, and if we can keep as much of it together as we can that’s good," Cheveldayoff said.

Stafford, who was acquired with defenceman Tyler Myers from Buffalo in February’s trade involving Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian, said there’s the potential he’d sign with the Jets if he gets an offer because "it was a great experience overall."

Pavelec, whom Cheveldayoff called the team’s No. 1 goalie, is going to play at the World Championship for the Czech Republic, which is hosting the tournament. Jets netminder Connor Hellebuyck has been named to the U.S. team.

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