Let’s start with what we know for a fact: the Winnipeg Jets are a pretty mediocre team, and have been for quite a few years. They have fallen just short of the playoffs each of their last two seasons, and are likely going to do exactly the same again this year. I think even the old timers and the statheads can agree that the Jets, as currently constructed, simply are not a team that is a threat to do anything come the playoffs and are more likely to crash and burn in the first round than anything. Again, that is only if they manage to squeak into the playoffs.
Another fact is that most of the roster including the entire "core" have been locked up long term, which means that the bulk of the team that isn’t good enough today will continue taking the ice in three seasons from now. Excessive term and -- less importantly -- an inflated dollar value has created the potential to damage this team’s future and Chevy has been handing out term on every single significant contract he has negotiated (Anthony Peluso and Al Montoya don’t count as "significant", I’m afraid).
A third is that fact the defenders of this current regime cite that the Jets are among the youngest teams in the league and are a team on the rise. While this is undeniably true, it is only relevant if the youngsters are showing improvement and there is a reasonable expectation that a below-average young team will turn into an above-average middle-aged team. Is Zach Bogosian better this year than two years ago? Is Evander Kane? What evidence is there that they will improve as we move through the life of their contracts? Precious little. The group of Bryan Little, Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom, Ondrej Pavelec and Mark Stuart is even less likely to make any significant gains over the life of their contracts. This is a huge portion of the team from whom we are not likely to see any improvement.
So, if we are to improve as a team, we are relying on 100% of that improvement coming from Mark Scheifle and Jacob Trouba, who have both shown flashes of brilliance this year. How much better would they have to be in order to carry the other nine I just listed? Not only will they be responsible for all of the improvement the team may make, they will have to help offset the inevitable decline in the games of Stuart, Pavelec (if that’s even possible), and Ladd.
In addition to these facts, there are a number of claims that, while not provable, have a fair bit of evidence in their support. For starters, NHL GM’s are risk averse, and our GM appears to be particularly so. This is hardly surprising given that one or two poor contracts can derail a team for years, cost a GM his job, and his ownership group millions of dollars.
However, this environment is not unique to the Winnipeg Jets. All GM’s face these pressures and yet are somehow, over a three year timeframe, are able to overcome their fear of error to take steps to improve their teams in a myriad of ways (drafting, signing, trading). One local scribe, and loyal Winnipeg Jets mouthpiece, has been preaching patience above all else (in addition to creating more than a few straw-man arguments). While patience is critical, especially for a team so bereft of potential as the Thrashers franchise was, it ceases to be a virtue when it renders a club completely incapable of action. As evidence that too much patience can be detrimental, witness the too-long tenure of Claude Noel. Had Chevy made the move to fire him one month sooner, what could Maurice have done with this club and an extra month? Or Pavelec’s continuously inexplicable volume of starts, despite bottom of the league performance? How many more points would we have if he has started 20 games fewer? Multiply that dithering by a hundred other decisions a GM has to make and you have a recipe for perpetual mediocrity.
Loyalty is the primary organizational value of the True North Sports and Entertainment ownership group. Like patience, it is an admirable virtue that can cause great difficulty if it is practiced in excess. I strongly question TNSE’s hiring of Manitoba Moose personnel to fill NHL roles. For the most part, if these people were qualified to work at the NHL level, they would have been doing so already. This does not apply solely to Noel, although he is the most public example, but to all of the staff below him that were brought over as well. As impressive as Craig Heisinger’s rise in the hockey world has been, and as proud as everyone should be of his accomplishments, he had no business being the GM of an NHL franchise. To his very great credit, he turned down the position when it was offered, recognizing that sometimes actual ability outweighs loyalty and character in this particular business. I fear that his levelheadedness and critical thinking are in short supply at TNSE.
The evidence to date also suggests that the Jets have done an admirable job of drafting during the current management’s tenure. Both Scheifle and Trouba appear to be excellent selections and the early returns on Adam Lowry, Nicolas Petan, Joshua Morissey, Eric Comrie, Andrew Copp, Brendan Kitchton and others are very encouraging. The critical question is this: as these players begin to develop and push for spots on the big club, are they an improvement on the players whose positions they will be taking, or merely replacements? Is Petan a bonafide first line centre, or Morissey a top pairing defeceman? And by the time they get here, will they simply be replacing Little and Enstrom, with no net improvement?
Now we can move from facts and pretty supportable claims to ones that are much less so and I concede as much. My first claim is that Chevy and Co. are poor evaluators of NHL talent. They unreasonably weigh the ability of their own players (Pavelec, Stuart, Clitsome, for example) and -- with the very notable exception of Frolik -- have done a poor job of off-season player acquisition (Ponikarovski, Jokinen, Setoguchi). My expectation would be that with seasoned NHLers, you should be able to chalk up more than a 1-in-4 success rate, given how much should be known about the players.
My second claim is that Chevy is trying to do too many things well and is actually doing all of them poorly. Stockpiling picks and prospects is a perfectly fine strategy, especially when you appear to have some talent at drafting youngsters and they fit in with the age profile of your current roster. As a fan and economist, I can get behind this: it is both logical and takes advantage of a potential competitive edge. However, if you are going to go this route, you must actually do the sort of things that allow you to acquire picks and prospects! 18 games of Devin Setoguchi on a non-playoff team has a value of zero to the franchise. He, like Ron Hainsey last year, were likely worth no more than a third round pick, but those are at least two third round picks the Jets don’t have. There were nine goalies that changed hands before the deadline this year, so teams clearly felt there was an area of need. Al Montoya and his .920+ save percentage were worth nothing? Olli Jokinen and his 15 goals didn’t attract interest? If you are going to claim to be about this, every UFA that can get a return of more than a can of Gatorade powder should be shipped out, if they aren't going to be resigned.
I heard an excellent point the other day that NHL players place no value in future picks; they, quite rightly, want to win now and aren’t that keen on trading NHL players for futures. The Jets, by all accounts, have a tight locker room and enjoy each other. There is an argument to be made for not breaking that up and letting the players try to finish what they have started by pushing for the playoffs together. I would argue that Chevy has tried that tact with them in the past and they have failed spectacularly to live up to their end of that deal. How many times has this team laid an egg in an important game against a lesser opponent? Most recently, it came against a depleted and reeling New York Islanders team, but the Jets have had terrible losses in the past to a Florida Panthers team that had 10 AHL call-ups in the lineup and down the stretch last year when Chevy claimed that they had earned the right to make a playoff push together. This team effectively got their coach fired. They, in my mind, have no right to expect to be left alone to go about their business, given their past performances.
Alternatively, you could say that we had legitimate playoff chances last year and this. I dispute this, but you could make the argument, Adding a piece or two might improve those odds. I would not have been supportive of this, no matter how badly I want to see playoff hockey in Winnipeg again, but this would have been a reasonable course of action. The Jets have one position of depth (RHD) and could have moved one or two young players for an established NHLer without compromising their future.
Both would have been reasonable courses of action. Naturally, the Jets did neither and are again stuck in the no-man’s land of not making the playoffs, not getting a high draft pick, and not adding draft picks. Unfortunately, I can point to nothing that suggests this pattern will not repeat itself next year, and the year after that, and the year after that.
#whatdidchevydotoday – worked on his perpetual mediocrity machine, just like every other day