The Winnipeg Jets were in a difficult position heading into Free Agent Frenzy on July 1st. Kevin Cheveldayoff was handed the keys to an existing NHL franchise, but without even given the chance to give the team he inherited a test-drive he was unreasonably expected to spend a ton of money on flashy upgrades for his newest toy. Since Chevy and Co. haven't yet had the chance to get a feel for what is under the hood on this Winnipeg Jets' team, it was unrealistic to assume that the Jets would be uber-aggressive in this weak Free Agency market that saw noted 19-goal scorer Ville Leino score a six-year contract that will see him earn $4.5M per season. With Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler and Zach Bogosian all RFA's as of July 1st and due for big raises (with Ladd since being re-signed to a stellar deal with a cap-hit less then the aforementioned Ville Leino (5-year, $4.4M per season), the Jets had no reason to be major players in Free Agency.
Judging by the six free agent signings on the first weekend of Free Agency, the Jets did exactly as they should have done. They improved their organizational depth and brought in some grit and toughness without breaking the bank. While the two most recognizable names on the list are probably Tanner Glass and Randy Jones because of the time they spent in the NHL last year (with the Vancouver Canucks and Tampa Bay Lightning, respectively), the two names that intrigue me the most from the list are Rick Rypien and Mark Flood. Why is that? Because both guys played for Claude Noel last year with the Manitoba Moose, and both were signed by Craig Heisinger to AHL contracts. They are both known commodities to True North Sports and Entertainment, and both have shown their loyalty by sticking with the Jets.
Rick Rypien is an interesting story. While most of the league is quick to pass him off as a brainless goon who was suspended for grabbing a fan in Minnesota and has required two leaves of absenses to deal with "personal issues", the fact is that he is a self-made professional who has fought his way (literally) to where he is today. Rypien went undrafted in the WHL Bantam Draft, yet by the end of his tenure in the 'Dub' he was the team captain for the Regina Pats. Again going undrafted into the NHL out of junior, he signed an Amateur Tryout Contract with Craig Heisinger and the Manitoba Moose on March 22, 2005. He quickly parlayed that tryout into an AHL contract on July 4, 2005, as he and some guy named Alexandre Burrows signed with the Moose. The Canucks liked what they saw, and signed both Burrows and Rypien to NHL contracts later that year.
While Burrows has become a mainstay on the Canucks' front line with the Sedin twins, Rypien has admittedly struggled with many things, mainly staying up at the NHL level. After going on his most recent leave of absence with the Canucks, many people were surprised to see that Rypien was put on to the Moose playoff reserve list this past season. However, Claude Noel certainly liked what he saw in Rypien, as judged from his quote from the Winnipeg Sun on May 12, 2011:
He plays the game with a lot of will and his game is infectious. It’s hard not to have him on your team and play with that type of fire. It’ll be hard to keep him out of the NHL. If I had the opportunity, he would be a guy that I would look at and I told him that.
Rypien played in 11 regular season games and 7 playoff games before sustaining a knee injury, but Noel still found a use for him. In Game 5 of the North Division Final versus the Hamilton Bulldogs,Rypien was behind the bench in a suit and tie, and Noel had him assisting the coaching staff. It is obvious that Rypien has found his way into Noel's good books, in much the same way that he was in the good books of Alain Vignault in Vancouver. Both Zinger and Noel have shown their faith in Rypien, and it was certainly nice to see Rypien return the favor and sign with the Winnipeg Jets. After all of the things that Rypien has been through, it's nice to see that he still has people like Zinger and Noel rooting for him. Reading the quotes from Rypien in the Winnipeg Free Press on July 3rd, it is easy to see that Rypien appreciates everything True North has done for him and was eager to return the favour:
Waking up (Friday) morning I didn’t know what was going to happen and I was very nervous. But now I’m probably more excited than I’ve ever been, just because I get to come back to where I started my professional career and get my feet back on the ground. It’s not only for me personally, but to speak to the city and everyone involved there. I want to help turn that team into a contender.
It came down to the character those guys have and how much they believe in me and the opportunity they’ve given me and how much they’ve stuck by me and their loyalty.
I just wanted to be loyal back to them. I’m truly excited and grateful.
As for Mark Flood, his story with True North may not go back as far as Rypien's but it is also very interesting. Flood was taken in the 6th round, 188th overall, by the Montreal Canadiens in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft following some impressive seasons with the Peterborough Petes in the OHL. However, nothing materialized with the Habs for him, and he ended up signing as a Free Agent with the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2005 but never saw action at the NHL level. He was then traded to the Carolina Hurricanes for Mark Walser in 2006, and spent the entire time with Albany in the AHL. Signing as a Free Agent with the New York Islanders in 2009, Flood managed to get into 6 games with the Isles but spent the majority of the season in Bridgeport. With no other options this past season, Flood signed an AHL contract with Craig Heisinger and the Manitoba Moose on Sept. 8, 2010.
It didn't take long for coach Noel to take notice of Flood, as he was soon on the top d-pairing with captain Nolan Baumgartner. He ended the season with 11 goals, 29 assists for 40 points in 63 games, as he unfortunately missed a number of games with a hand injury. In the playoffs he added 6 assists in 14 games, but also played major minutes in all game situations. Noel had this to say about Flood in a December 28, 2010 article from the Winnipeg Sun:
He's steady and he makes a lot of smart decisions, good decisions. He moves the puck, shoots the puck. He does a lot of little things. He's heady. He finds open lanes. Some guys will pound their shot 1,000 times and it doesn't get through, but his gets through.
By the end of the season and into the playoffs, he was in my opinion the best d-man on the team. Since I was covering the Moose for Nucks Misconduct last year, I frequently noticed how well Flood was playing and even had this to say about him in a post I put up on January 17, 2011:
Prediction time, so feel free to write this down somewhere. D-man Mark Flood will be signed by the Canucks within the next year. He has been unreal for the Moose. Signed to an AHL contract on Sept. 8, he has put up 18 points in only 22 games played, is playing important minutes in all situations and is also wearing an 'A' on his chest. Flood was drafted in the 6th round of the 2003 Entry Draft (188th by Montreal) and enjoyed a cup of coffee with the Islanders in 09-10, but he's only 26 and could prove to be a late bloomer and a great find. I'm very impressed with what he has to offer and I would bet that Canucks management have noticed as well.
Little did I know that the Jets would be coming back and that it would be True North that would keep him around. But I routinely told anybody who would listen that Flood was the best defender on the Moose and that he would earn an NHL contract, even if on a 2-way, within the next year. Turns out I was right! But even if Flood doesn't make the Jets out of camp, he will have a big fan coaching him down in St. John's since Keith McCambridge, who was an assistant in Manitoba last year, is expected to named the head coach of the new AHL franchise out East. McCambridge was singing the praises of Flood last season, as seen in this quote from the Winnipeg Sun on May 5, 2011:
Mark does everything well. He’s a leader in the dressing room, a fun-loving guy and the guys think highly of him for his everyday approach. He was an outstanding find. He plays with veteran poise.
Both Rypien and Flood came to the Manitoba Moose looking for work, and both have now parlayed their efforts into NHL contracts with the Winnipeg Jets. Having Craig Heisinger and Claude Noel on board with these decisions certainly must have played a part in the decision for Cheveldayoff to sign these two guys, and I do believe that both guys will be given a really solid chance to earn a spot with the big club.
True North knows what they are going to get out of these guys, which in my opinion is worth a lot more to this squad then bringing in any of the "prized" overpriced free agents. On the flipside, both of these players know exactly what they are going to get out of True North. Having them decide to remain here in Winnipeg, this frigid wasteland in the middle of nowhere without parks, when they probably could have taken their talents somewhere else (warmer), tells me that they believe in where this franchise is going and that says a lot.