Lighting the Lamp, with Rick Ackerman
When the NHL allowed the Atlanta Thrashers franchise to relocate to Winnipeg as the Jets in 2011, a dilemma was created concerning the placement of teams in divisions/conferences. Atlanta had been in the Southeast Division of the Eastern Conference along with Washington, Tampa Bay, Carolina, and Florida and after relocation, the Jets remained in that division, against all geographical reality. That problem was corrected this season as Winnipeg moved to the Central Division of the Western Conference, even if it meant there would be 16 teams in the East and 14 in the West and an unbalanced schedule. The Jets, of course, joined St. Louis, Colorado, Chicago, Minnesota, Dallas and Nashville in the Central Division. The move might have eased travel considerations for Winnipeg, yet the Central Division is arguably the toughest in the league, and it became much more difficult for the Jets to qualify for the playoffs, something that has not happened since 2007, the only time the franchise qualified for post-season play in its short 15 year history.
Nor is it likely Winnipeg will qualify this season. The Jets trail the division-rival Stars, who hold the eighth and last seed, by six points and the seventh-seeded Minnesota Wild by 9 points. After the game tonight in St. Louis, Winnipeg only has 12 games left, five at home. Worse yet, nine of those remaining games are against good teams that will make the playoffs. The Jets have a decent enough offense, ranked in the middle of the pack at 17th (2.65 goals per game), yet their biggest weakness is team defense, ranked 21st (2.84 goals against per game), despite the often spectacular play of goaltenders Ondrej Pavelec and Al Montoya. Big defenseman Dustin Byfuglien illustrates this perfectly as he has scored a whopping 17 goals and 49 points in 68 games, yet is a team-leading minus-18. Ouch!
Yes, you have to feel sorrow and pity for the hockey fans in Winnipeg as they face yet another dismal, disappointing season. However, it is not as if they have not experienced the joys of championship major-league hockey since the original Winnipeg Jets of the World Hockey Association won three Avco World Trophies, led by none-other than the Golden Jet, Bobby Hull, HHoF 1983. In December, 1971, Winnipeg was granted one of the founding franchises in the WHA. The Jets, named after the junior team in Winnipeg in the old Western Canada Hockey League, first signed former Blues right winger Norm Beaudin ("the Original Jet"), yet it was the acquisition of Hull from the NHL that spurred the most interest. Hull was signed to a million dollar contract, a record-breaking contract for a hockey player in 1972, and immediately added credibility and respect to the new, upstart league. Hull instantly became the WHA's greatest star, and with Swedish linemates Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson, led Winnipeg to two championships during his time playing for the Jets. Hull's best performance was during the 1974-75 season when he scored 77 goals.
Winnipeg was the first professional hockey team in North America to seriously explore Europe as a source of talent. Besides signing Hedberg and Nilsson, the Jets made Swedish defenseman Lars-Erik Sjoberg, arguably the best defenseman in the WHA, the captain of the club. Other notable European players included Willy Lindstrom and Kent Nilsson. Winnipeg also made hockey history in 1978 with a 5-3 victory over the touring Soviet National team, making the Jets the first North American team to defeat the Russian elite squad.
Winnipeg was the flagship franchise of the WHA, qualifying for the playoffs six of seven years and making it to the finals five times. In the last WHA season (1978-79), center Nilsson scored 107 points, while winger Morris Lukowich had 65 goals in leading the Jets to the championship. Goaltender Gary Smith gave up the last goal in WHA history to Edmonton's Dave Semenko (set up by Wayne Gretzky, of course) in the Jets' 7-3 victory. Winnipeg was absorbed into the NHL for the 1979-80 season when the WHA disbanded, yet could never recapture the magic of the time in the WHA. It took three seasons for the Jets to qualify for the NHL playoffs, and when they did in 1982, the Blues easily knocked them out, winning three games out of four. Nor would Winnipeg advance out of the division to the conference finals in the next 14 years in Canada. In 1996, the team was relocated to Phoenix under a new ownership group headed by Jerry Colangelo.
The modern Jets are severely handicapped by being placed in the Central Division and have only won 7 of 24 contests (19 points) against division rivals. In contrast, the Blues have won an amazing 19 of 21 games (40 points), while Colorado has 17 wins and 36 points in 25 matches. Minnesota (12 wins, 26 points in 24 games), Dallas (8 wins, 21 points in 22 games), Chicago (9 wins, 21 points in 23 games) and Nashville (9 wins and 20 points in 23 games) have not done nearly as well. And Chicago's dismal performance will more than likely mean a very surprising third place finish in the division.
Look for the Blues to reach and/or surpass the 100 point mark tonight against the Jets as they continue the quest for the Presidents' Trophy and home ice advantage in the upcoming playoffs.