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Central Division proves tough but Winnipeg Jets still showed improvement

WINNIPEG - The shorter travel times were great but moving to a new, more competitive Central Division in the NHL this season didn't help the Winnipeg Jets' playoff hopes.

But the numbers show things weren't all bleak for the former Atlanta Thrashers, who saw the post-season only once in 2007 when they made a quick first-round exit.

How much tougher is the Central?

The top three teams, Colorado, St. Louis and Chicago had combined for 330 points. They were, in order, plus-30, plus-57 and plus-47 in goal differentials.

Chicago and St. Louis also both get single-digit odds to win the Stanley Cup this season.

In 2011-12, the only full season available for comparison since the team moved, the top three teams in the Southeast Division were Florida, Washington and Tampa Bay, with a combined total of 270 points and goal differentials of minus-24, minus-8 and minus-46, respectively.

Winnipeg's 84 points were good enough for seventh and last place in the Central this season and the same 84 bought them fourth in the Southeast in 2012 in a tie on points with third-place Tampa Bay. They finished both seasons with the same 37-35-10 record.

And, despite the tougher competition, Winnipeg improved in some areas this season. The Jets brought their goal differential down to minus-10 from minus-21 in 2011-12 and some of their star players raised their game.

Forward Blake Wheeler's personal high of 69 points ranked him 21st on the NHL scoring list and, despite injuries, rookies Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba impressed the league with their talent and grit.

"You want to be a leader and being a leader is more than just giving good speeches," said Wheeler. "You want your play to speak for itself."

Trouba's 10 goals and 29 points ranked him third among rookie defencemen and he did it in 65 games. Scheifele's 34 points ranked him ninth among rookie forwards in 63 games.

"I guess I didn't really know what to expect coming in here, it's kind of been a whirlwind, but it's definitely been fun," said the 20-year-old Trouba, who has shown a lot of maturity on and off the ice. "We're close but I think a lot of teams are close, right? I think we know what we have to do this off-season and what kind of shape we have to come back in."

Dustin Byfuglien's move to forward from defence saw him with a record 56 points, although he doesn't hide his desire to move back to the blue-line, and centre Bryan Little finished with a record 64 points. Throw in captain Andrew Ladd and the team had four players who scored 20 or more goals in 2013-14, one more than 2011-12.

Ladd is still a big believer that the core they have now can get the job done.

"I completely believe in this group," he said. "Playoffs is one thing but I'm not here just to make the playoffs. We want to build something here where we're a contender year after year. I feel like we have the guys in the room to do that."

Goaltending was a mixed bag for the Jets.

Starter Ondrej Pavelec's numbers were down with a save percentage of .901 and record of 22-26-7 with just one shutout. In 2011-12 he had a save percentage of .906, a record of 29-28-9 with four shutouts.

But Jets' backup Al Montoya was an improvement over former backup Chris Mason with a record of 13-8-3, two shutouts and a save percentage of .920. At the end of the season, Michael Hutchinson also came up from the AHL and delivered two wins out of the three games he played.

And coach Paul Maurice, who took over in January when Claude Noel paid with his job for poor performance, says he still wants to see better defensive play from the rest of the team before he can pass judgment on the quality of Winnipeg's goaltending.

"Those guys have had to make saves they shouldn't have to make," he said. "Before we assess any of our goaltenders, we've got to get it right in front of them."

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