When the Atlanta Thrashers changed their name, colours and migrated up north to Winnipeg one of the first things we were told was that this organization had a five year plan. They believed they could take a relatively young core and turn them in to a contending team within five years. The lower bowl seats came with a five year commitment, Kevin Cheveldayoff was signed to a five year deal and everyone bought in to the plan.
As we know in life, things don't always go as planned. This summer, after two seasons in Winnipeg, True North decided to extend Cheveldayoff's contract by two years. They also decided to extend Claude Noel one more season. At the time I was confused, I had not seen anything out of those two to believe an extension was warranted. But as I often do, I tried to think what the thought process was behind these decisions and what it meant to the state of the Jets.
The first move I'll address is the extension of Claude Noel. All the talk heading into this season was that the Jets were tired of playing golf while the other teams were in the playoffs. This was the year we were going to take a step forward. Whenever you go into contract negotiations, whether you be a player, coach, GM or an employee at your work; you sit down and your employer discusses what you've done well, what you haven't and where they want to see you improve. With playoff expectations this year the team did not want a looming contract decision with the head coach to take focus away from trying to make it into the dance. I'm sure they outlined what they wanted changed out of Noel and as an outsider, I don't think the optics really speak towards a changed Noel. My opinion is that a coaching change should be made after this season. But this isn't about Claude Noel, Derek wrote a great article about Noel and available coaches if you want to have that discussion.
This is about Cheveldayoff and what his extension means as we approach the half way mark of this season. His original five year contract came with a five year plan. His extension (at least in my eyes) signals an extension to that plan. We can argue until we are blue in the face about the moves that have been made by this organization in the past, but that's not productive. Whether any of us like it or not, this team has hit the reset button on the five year plan and we are in year one. It's year one for our young (hopeful) cornerstones Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba and it's year one for the man we refer to as Chevy as he tries to reevaluate what this team is and where it needs to go.
There is no doubt this reality is going to upset fans. The Jets are not a playoff team this season, they aren't going to make playoffs. The season ticket holders that have a decision coming up this summer about whether or not to renew have a tough decision to make. What they believed and committed to two and a half years ago has been scrapped by the organization. While this may sound like a bleak outlook and that all hope is lost, this isn't the case. If the Jets truly are committed to making us a contender in five years there need to be changes made as soon as possible. The reset button needs to be hit, the roster needs to be reevaluated and it starts with one move...
The Jets need to trade Dustin Byfuglien.
Dustin Byfuglien is 28 years old, he turns 29 in March. He is the most dynamic player on the Jets roster and is one of my favourite Jets to watch when he's on. He showed up to camp in the best shape of his life, he's in his prime and he is one of the biggest difference makers on the team (positively or negatively) and that's why he needs to go. If the Jets are going to be a contender in 5 years, Byfuglien is going to be 34 years old by the time the playoffs roll around, he's not going to be the same player he is now and the Jets will no doubt be hoping guys like Jacob Trouba and Zach Bogosian have stepped up and taken over his role on the team. If we trade Dustin Byfuglien now, he's going to do very well on another team, he might even win a Stanley Cup and it's going to make the Jets worse for the next year or two. But trading him in his prime is going to yield the greatest return and could potentially help this roster down the road. Draft picks and highly touted prospects would be the best return possible for Byfuglien. I don't want a lateral move, I want to get worse now and improve our long term outlook. The message I want from the organization is simple. They don't need to come out and say it, but a move like this (followed by others) would send this message:
We were wrong in the evaluation of the roster when it came over from Atlanta. Now that we have had time to get to know it better we will take every step necessary to turn this team into a contender down the road. We have committed to our young core and will do everything possible to put them in a situation to succeed.
Here are other players that need to be evaluated to see where they fit into the new "Five Year Plan":
Blake Wheeler, 27 years old
Devin Setoguchi, 26 years old
Andrew Ladd, 28 years old
Tobias Enstrom, 29 years old
Grant Clitsome, 28 years old
Olli Jokinen, 35 years old
Bryan Little, 26 years old
I'm not saying all of these players need to go. Trading away all the veterans on a team is never a recipe for short term or long term success. Players like Andrew Ladd and Michael Frolik (can you believe he's only 25? Feels like he's been around the league much longer) serve as leaders and mentors to players like Mark Scheifele and Evander Kane, where players like Dustin Byfuglien and Blake Wheeler are workhorses that are more useful to a contending team and don't provide the same type of leadership as other players might.
The three I would look to move this trade season are Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom and Blake Wheeler. With the exception of Wheeler these are players that I really like on this team, But they are all in their primes and are much more useful to playoff teams than they are to the Winnipeg Jets. You could even package Setoguchi along with one of these players as a rental for another team to yield a better return. We can't dwell on the mistakes the organization has made or hold on to the hope that the Thrashers team we inherited was going to be a contender in two more years. While Blake Wheeler's contract at $5.8M a year after this season is a little steep right now, with the salary cap going up over the next few seasons that is easily going to be the going rate for a top 6 forward. Letting him walk away for next to nothing last summer would have hurt, trading him while he has value now could benefit the teams future more than letting him go in the summer or keeping him for the length of his contract.
Finally we go between the pipes. Ondrej Pavelec is under contract for three more years beyond this season. In the first two seasons of a rebuild winning is not going to be the most important thing; we are going to be putting our young players in a position to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. This likely is going to result in high draft picks for the next couple seasons as well. In that situation having a shut down goaltender isn't the most important thing for the team. Pavelec has been better this season, keeping him gives him more time to figure things out and if he doesn't it's not exactly a big deal.
I'm not advocating losing on purpose. If our young core overachieves and wins games it'd be unbelievable and I'd get behind it. But it's time for us to embrace our youth, tear away the old parts and fill the cupboard up with more prospects and draft picks.
I want to see winning more than anything. But the ceiling for this group of players is not a Stanley Cup winning team. If the organization were to acknowledge this and start making moves to change the status quo I will buy into the new five year plan. It's time for the organization and the fans to move on and embrace the rebuild. I hope they do.