The more things change, the more they stay the same. And if you are a fan of the Winnipeg Jets, that should concern you.
The ink is still wet on the long-term extensions to Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler, and it's only a matter of time before Zach Bogosian re-ups for what is likely to be a long-term deal as well. These signings had to happen, as the alternative was going to arbitration and allowing them to leave as UFA's in a few short years which would have been terrible asset management. The situation clearly dictated that they had to be signed.
This entry is not to critique these signings. Instead, it's to bring to your attention to the fact that all three of these guys have something in common. They all wore Atlanta Thrashers jerseys. So did Evander Kane, Andrew Ladd, Ondrej Pavelec, Tobias Enstrom and Jim Slater. And once Bogo signs, Kevin Cheveldayoff will have minted every single one of them to long-term deals.
You may have noticed that three names weren't mentioned above: Dustin Byfuglien, Mark Stuart and Chris Thorburn. Well, Chevy hasn't had the chance to extend these guys yet as they had term on their deals when they arrived in Winnipeg. Whether they re-sign here or not remains to be seen, but unless Big Buff is moved, I have a sneaking suspicion that he'll be extended as well. As for Stuart and Thorburn? Well, they're easily replaceable, but I included them for the sake of this argument.
So let me get this straight: True North Sports and Entertainment bought a sad-sack franchise in the summer of 2011 that had never won a playoff game in the entirety of its existence and here we are three years later with the exact same core still meandering on the ice? Huh.
While the words may have never been uttered by the Jets themselves, a lot of talk in and around town was that this summer was the time when Kevin Cheveldayoff would put a stamp on this team. Well, he did, but that stamp belonged to Rick Dudley. This is the same team, give or take, that the Jets inherited from the Atlanta Spirit Group.
Sure, some fat has been trimmed; names like Nik Antropov and Ron Hainsey are no longer here. And yes, Olli Jokinen was added to provide some much needed depth at centre. And so were a half-dozen of Chevy's oh-so-beloved waiver-wire pickups. But the core pieces, as clearly defined by the fat cash they have signed for in the past few years, are all still here. If this was the plan all along, why not bring Rick Dudley up with the team when they moved from Atlanta? In case you've forgotten -- or let's face it, have probably chosen to ignore -- what the Thrash looked like in their final season, check it out here.
I've read a lot about the first year being an "evaluation" year, and that Chevy should be given some slack as the team figured out what they had. That doesn't jive with me. The head scout, Marcel Comeau (and his terrible draft record) came up with the team, and he knew the players Winnipeg was inheriting. A few meetings could have answered those questions easily. And what was there really to evaluate? We all knew the team wasn't very good, as was clearly proven by missing the playoffs each of the last two seasons in the Southeast Division. Not to mention that Rick Dudley's "evaluation period" in Atlanta consisted of blowing his team up and making them instantly better, landing the likes of Byfuglien and Ladd from the Chicago Blackhawks for little more than draft choices and busting prospects.
In my humble opinion, which you can take or leave as you wish, the first year was the time to make a change or three to this core. The fans wouldn't have cared what product was put on the ice (we cheered a group that weren't very good, anyway) and we'd forgive moving out some "talent" that year. We were just thrilled to have a team back. But instead, we sat there and watched a team with more holes in it than good players go through the motions and miss the playoffs easily. And you know what? Many of those holes are still here.
Rick Dudley could have come along with the team and very likely done a better job than Chevy has. There, I said it. He knew the team he had in Atlanta. He'd already made a heck of a trade at the deadline before the Thrashers moved by acquiring Wheeler and Mark Stuart for Rich Peverley and Boris Valabik. He wouldn't have needed the evaluation year, and perhaps some more changes could have been made in year one. All hypothetical of course, but what did Chevy do in year one other than move Johnny Oduya at the deadline for picks and claim a bunch of castoffs like Grant Clitsome and Antti Miettinen off of waivers?
I've never wanted a quick fix, so lets get that out of the way. I've never advocated for any of the massive UFA contracts that have been handed out the past two summers. I thought that Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Anton Khudobin were great low-cost signings this summer, and I thought that Jussi Jokinen on waivers for free would have helped us last year. But those were peripheral moves. What I have advocated for from virtually the start was for some of our "luxury" core items to be moved for multiple pieces in return.
Perhaps Byfuglien, Wheeler or Enstrom could have been moved for multiple pieces so that some of the many holes in the roster could be filled with actual NHLers. And though we may not have a player of Mike Richards' caliber on the team, a return similar to what the Philadelphia Flyers got for him (Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn and a second round pick) from any of those guys would have gone a long way towards kick-starting a rebuild and filling holes properly instead of relying on the waiver wire to do so. Either that, or moving some UFA assets like Ron Hainsey instead of letting him walk for nothing. It's become apparent that UFA's don't flock to the 'Peg, so acquiring picks is like acquiring the currency needed to trade for players (such as Devin Setoguchi and Michael Frolik this summer). If we're rebuilding, let's do it right.
But no, this opportunity was missed. And instead, Chevy had to pony up to keep all of Dudley's guys. I'll be honest, I like all the players that signed and think that market value dictated the money they got. I have no issue with the contracts as they were fair. But the fact remains that this team is by and large the same team that Dudley had in Atlanta, complete with the same core and many of the same weaknesses, and these guys still aren't surrounded by a ton of talent. The second line is still an unproven, broken mess.
And before you talk about Devin Setoguchi, Michael Frolik, Matt Halischuk, Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba, let's remember that four of them haven't played a game with the Jets yet and that Scheif is still a giant question mark heading into this coming season. Add to that Alexander Burmistrov's defection to the KHL and that Grant Clitsome is now a top four defenceman on your depth chart? Well, while they may be improved, this team will still be in tough to win in the tough Western Conference.
My biggest concern is that while Chevy appears to have drafted adequately (though I'm on record as not being a fan of his 1st-round picks, and Trouba looks to have proven me wrong already) overall, these reinforcements are nowhere near being ready to help. Maybe Scheifele and Trouba this fall. Maybe Adam Lowry and Eric O`Dell this year or next. But are guys like Joshua Morrissey and Nicolas Petan going to push this current core over the top any time soon? I think not, and when they are ready this core may be approaching or already on the downside of their careers.
Another thing I've heard "unofficially" ad nauseum is the 5-year plan. Well, as we sit here today nearing the halfway point of it, I'm not sold on the direction that the team is taking. We still have a below-average starting goalie with a backup that the coach doesn't trust. We still have a blue-line that, well, isn't the strongest in the league. And we may or may not have found that elusive winger to play with Evander Kane but paid a future second rounder to get him. But our two biggest weaknesses -- depth up the middle and goaltending -- are not improved.
Could Rick Dudley have done a better job than Kevin Cheveldayoff? Who knows. But I think he wouldn't have needed that evaluation year, that the rebuild could have started earlier and that perhaps we'd be further along in it right now. That evaluation year, and whatever this past season was, cost these players two years out of their contracts in seasons with very little hope of winning. And that's too bad.
Instead, most of the Thrashers' core is locked up with big money and term to boot, and I'm pretty confident that they do not have the trade value they once had. Enstrom has a no movement clause, Pavelec's contract is an untradeable anchor, and Byfuglien is a depreciating asset whose value is very debatable. Bogosian, Wheeler and Little will all have huge deals and are likely here for the long term. So it's left to Kane and Ladd to have the most value, and I don't want to move them. The time has passed to make the moves I was hoping for, and I think if Dudley was here then perhaps a few of them may have been made and the proper rebuild the Jets needed would have started when it should have.
More from Arctic Ice Hockey:
- The Winnipeg Jets may as well have kept Rick Dudley as GM
- Blake Wheeler signs 6-year $33.6MM deal to remain with the Winnipeg Jets
- Percentages and Probabilities: Does luck exist and how do you factor for it?
- Jets sign RFA Eric O'Dell to 1 year, 2-way deal worth 600k in NHL
- Anthony Peluso signs on for another 2 years with the Jets