So it was, on the sixth day of the first month, that the Great Hockey Lockout came to an end. And the people saw it, and they knew that it was good — or at least, that it was a merciful curtain on the theatre of the absurd into which the NHL’s labour negotiations had devolved. SerotaPodiumDregerface.
At any rate, there is to be an NHL season. Which means the Winnipeg Jets are back (again). Which means hopes will be raised, beers will be drank (and subsequently thrown at the television) and Rick Ralph will soon find himself pushed to the limits of human patience and yet, improbably, remain Not Unwell.
Now, as our prodigal Jets scramble to pack, hop on planes and get their butts back to Winnipeg, we reflect on five of the prime storylines we’ll be following as the brisk post-lockout season unfolds.
1. Burmi’s Days
At age 20, most hockey fans were possessed of the inner peace and self-knowledge of Buddhist monks. So it’s easy to understand why, as the 2011-12 season went on, they would send more disapproving scowls towards plucky forward Alex Burmistrov. While Burmi was one of the Jets’ most effective defensive forwards, his ambitious dipsy-doodles drew more facepalms than goals, and rumours of his stubbornness rolled.
Adding to the challenge: Burmistrov is Russian, which means that instead of being young, he’s “enigmatic,” probably only cares about money and isn’t just going to the KHL but has probably already left right now, notwithstanding the fact that he called it a league for old men and accepted a lockout assignment to the minors with relatively little fuss.
Here’s what jollies our jimmies, though: where Burmistrov has been sometimes overshadowed by the more explosive Evander Kane, his versatile skill-set is even more intriguing. Provided his apparent recent injury isn’t too bad, is there a chance that even a truncated 2012-13 could prove to be Burmi’s break-out season?
If it is, the Jets forward corps suddenly looks a whole lot more appealing.
P.S. – yeah, I just made a George Orwell reference in this here hockey article. Deal with it.
2. Hockey at the heart of our civic self-esteem.
When True North Sports and Entertainment bought the Atlanta Thrashers, the players shipped up to our frigid little ‘burg reacted — publicly, at least — with curiosity and professionalism. Heck, Andrew Ladd started building a house here almost before the ink on his five-year deal was dry.
Winnipeg, on the other hand, fumbled through the new relationship with the doe-eyed awkwardness of a teenager on a date with that really cute girl who’s like totally too good for him, like seriously man that girl is way out of your league, that girl is going to break your heart dude. The results were not particularly graceful.
How about that crowd? How do you like playing in front of these fans? How do you like living in Winnipeg? That was a rhetorical question: we secretly know you don’t like living in Winnipeg. Why don’t you like living in Winnipeg? Did you leave us because you hate Winnipeg? No wait we’re sorry don’t hate us, are you having fun in Winnipeg?
The players, for the most part, patiently navigated the questions with a patter of cliche; Enstrom, Slater, and Jokinen hopefully put any doubts to bed when they decided to sign for multiple seasons in Winnipeg — the former two, without even dipping their toes into free agency. So can Winnipeg finally accept the boys are here to stay, and stop begging them to reaffirm that we’re a worthy place to play?
3. Betting big on Blake Wheeler.
A funny thing happens if you venture into hockey forums, which you should never ever do while sober, but we digress. The funny thing is this: when asked to identify the 2011-12 MVP on the Jets, fans of other hockey clubs usually pick Evander Kane. But last season, a healthy plurality of Jets fans — the folks who actually watched every game — bestowed their vote on Blake Wheeler.
And the rest of the hockey forum crowd blinked, and scratched their heads, and went: “Huh?”
See, coming into last season — his fourth full year in the NHL — Blake Wheeler was seen as a bit of a disappointment around the league. During the long goalless drought that launched Wheeler’s 2011-12 season, it was easy enough to see why. Then he scored and never once looked back: between his 19th game and his 80th, Wheeler scored at nearly a point-per-game clip, tying for the 14th highest assists in the league. Most nights he was always dangerous, sometimes straight-up dominant.
The rest of the NHL may not have taken much notice of our surging top-line forward… yet. But mark our words: Blake Wheeler is the engine on which this offense turns. He and Jets head coach Claude Noel both believe he has another level; if he does, then he could carry this team straight into the playoffs.
4. Will the real Ondrej Pavelec please stand up? Or butterfly down, whatever just stop the puck.
Hi, my name’s Melissa, and I’m a recovering Ondraholic.
So I’m in recovery now, but I still have some really bad days. I still remember the sweet taste of That Save. When he pulled off moves like that, all our earthly problems faded away. The moment the cheers hit our lips, those saves were bliss.
Unfortunately, there weren’t nearly enough of them.
See, in the depths of my Ondraholism, I thought our tendy was saving us. We all did, and we all rejoiced when he got locked down for a long time. But now that we’re sober, we know the true damage Those Saves wrought. We know that they usually only happened because he was wildly out of position. And we know that his numbers were brutal, and not because of our brutal defense but because they were actually, all on him, superbad.
There’s no doubt Pavelec has the potential to be special. (Just ask The Goalie Guild.) He can be incredibly athletic; when he’s locked in, he’s a warrior. In his unfortunate sojourn in the Czech league, his numbers were brutal (though Liberec fans became Ondraholics too) but he flat-out owned at the Karjala Cup in Finland, although that was a small sample size.
Oh Ondrej. Look, off-ice stuff aside — and that’s a pretty big aside, brother — we need you to get it together.
5. On the road again.
Oh God, the road. The road.
I feel like when Cormac McCarthy wrote The Road, he was actually foreshadowing the Winnipeg Jets’ first season, a tragic tale of battered refugees limping down a highway, pursued by shrieking cannibals. That sounds about like that game in Detroit, or that game in Pittsburgh, or pretty much every away game in January.
We can’t even write on this too much. It’s too traumatic to even remember the repetitive sinking feeling of every strong home stand erased by yet another disastrous road game.
The only question left to be answered: are the Jets carrying the fire?
BONUS EXTRA SPECIAL STORYLINE: Kyle Wellwood. Everything about Kyle Wellwood.
Melissa Martin is entertainment editor at Spectator Tribune who just can’t stop herself from sharing her thoughts on hockey. Find her @doubleemmartin on Twitter, or firstname.lastname@example.org.