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Three years in, Winnipeg Jets management have proven how safe it is to feel safe

How risk aversion has locked TNSE in a paralysis of fear.


When it comes to social networking sites, I'm a big fan of Twitter.

It maintains 140 character limit per post which creates an environment where people need to keep their thoughts succinct, lending itself to lively discussions, especially when you mix in meaty topics the likes of sports and politics.

The other day my good friend @hockeynightdoc -- a rabid Winnipeg Jets fan living in Texas -- typed out this little beauty:

Of course you can guess what happened next; the "Kool Aid Kids" and the "Doom and Gloomers" got together for a jaunt in the park, setting the stage for good ol' fashioned Twitter rumble.

But it's not the fallout from this comment that interests me.

The prognosis that Mark Chipman & Co. are tethered to loyalty got me thinking that what might be perceived as allegiance is actually risk aversion. If you look at the history of TNSE's decision making, it's this risk aversion that might be systemic and counter productive.

Now risk aversion isn't necessarily a bad thing in any form of business. Mitigating one's risk is a chief responsibility for any executive in charge of sizeable capital. Sound business moves aren't made with a shoot-from-the-hip mentality. Rather you start with an idea, crunch the numbers, test the market, see if anyone else has prototyped something similar before crunching the numbers once again. If everything lines up, you pull the trigger. If betting the farm, you'll sometimes even hedge your bets appropriately. It's called risk management or risk mitigation and its what well run businesses do.

But here's the thing:

You still have to take the risk.

If a business isn't moving forward it's dying. Forward progress often means sallying up your courage and trying something new, different and risky. Serial entrepreneurs will sometimes risk it all, go bankrupt and rebound several times before hitting a successful model. Business is about taking risks whilst minimizing the downside, but the question is, within the operations of TNSE has the mitigation of risk affected hockey operations?

In TNSE you can see the evolution of risk mitigation within the organisation as probably a necessary survival mechanism from its early days. Bringing a minor league team into a market that was still harbouring bitterness and resentment towards the loss of their NHL club must have been and incredible leap of faith financially. Every ounce of capital would have to be expensed in the most efficient way possible. Later when building the MTS Centre TNSE would again be taking a tremendous risk in betting that a downtown 15,000 seat facility would work fiscally.

Again, in those early days the margins both in error and profit where likely slim to none and the art of mitigating the risk would have been essential. As the organisation evolved, the prospect of bringing an NHL team back to Winnipeg increased. While the prospect was exciting, it was also an incredibly hazardous quarter-billion dollar gamble. Once again, TNSE was obligated to walk the razor thin line of acceptable risk and after crunching the numbers, testing the market, and consulting with it's sister clubs, they pulled the trigger.

By now you're thinking, we know the story Mike, what's your point?

Building a management team from AHL front offices is a behaviour we've seen several times from TNSE as they attempt to thin out their risk profile by dealing only with talent they can quantify through first hand experience.

TNSE has evolved within a high risk environment since it's conception and as a result has become a risk averse organisation. Working on the precipice for so long has strangled systemic caution into the executive team to the point where one could argue the caution trickled down into hockey operations. If this is in fact the case, the result may have been counter productive. Hockey is the product that TNSE relies on for a revenue and it appears that they may have circled the wagons around hockey operations as a result. The gallant, well thought out chance taking that bought TNSE a seat alongside twenty-nine other NHL owners seemed somehow absent when choosing the front line hockey operations team for the new club.

A fresh face among General Managers, Kevin Cheveldayoff was a safe pick, a known quantity to TNSE through his AHL days managing the Chicago Wolves -- rivals of the Manitoba Moose. Their Assistant GM of choice was Craig Hesinger, a friend and confidant from their AHL days together. Building a management team from AHL front offices is a behaviour we've seen several times from TNSE as they attempt to thin out their risk profile by dealing only with talent they can quantify through first hand experience. Unfortunately, in some cases familiarity doesn't always breed success.

We saw how choosing a known commodity over performing extended due diligence worked when TNSE chose its first head coach in Claude Noel, a tactician who had coached the Manitoba Moose the season prior.

Noel had limited NHL coaching experience and an argument can be made that TNSE might have been better served by choosing from the ranks of the experienced, although unfamiliar coaching prospects available. Noel went on to coach the Jets through two and a half seasons of unsuccessful hockey, where at times his inexperience was blatantly apparent. Poor player management, flawed systematic play, and lack of team identity were all charges levied against him by those following the team.

The club rightly identified that Noel had to overcome mitigating circumstances, first with the move and then again with the NHL lockout of 2012. However, at the beginning of his third season Noel's shortcommings revealed themselves again, and TNSE failed to pivot decisively and didn't replace Noel until January, sacrificing a season that was well within reach of salvaging. An over-abundance of caution proved costly to fans who had been anxiously pining for a break through year.

In Kevin Cheveldayoff's office a similar story has played itself out over the same timeframe. The stated goal has been to build the team's core while stockpiling talent through the draft, which of course is a sensibly pragmatic strategy with the structure of today's NHL. However, again we being held captive by a systemic caution in asset management that may be hurting the on-ice product.

In three seasons the Winnipeg Jets have not made a player-for-player trade. While no one is asking Jets' management to make a trade for trade's sake, it would seem highly dubious to believe the opportunity to improve the club through said means never became available. Free agent signings have also been unremarkably safe, mostly one-year contracts that have hit and missed on shoring up the Jets' abysmal roster depth. Waiver wire transactions seem to be the preferred method of player acquisition, which again speaks to the appetite for risk within hockey operations.

TNSE was born in the fires of a high risk venture that continues to this day on the business side. What has grown out of this fire is an overly cautious approach in their hockey operations, essentially swinging the pendulum the other way.

Conversely, the one department that has been a bright spot in the hockey operations of the Winnipeg Jets has been that of scouting. Amazingly this is the one area that the Winnipeg Jets have taken chances, going off the board for first round picks Mark Scheifelle and Jacob Trouba. For whatever reason the usually reserved Jets have taken big chances in the draft and have achieved big results over a very short period of time. This may be in part due to Winnipeg bringing over three quarters of thier scouting staff from a dramatically less risk averse (to their detriment) Atlanta Thrashers. In any event, Jets management have taken the reigns that bind its hockey operations staff off of its scouting corp, with success as the result.

So what we're seeing here is a pendulum effect. TNSE was born in the fires of a high risk venture that continues to this day on the business side. What has grown out of this fire is an overly cautious approach in their hockey operations, essentially swinging the pendulum the other way. TNSE is slow to tinker with its club, too slow in fact for the new era NHL which demands the ability to pivot and adapt rapidly and far too slow for a fan base that is becoming increasingly uneasy with three years sans playoff appearances.

As the offseason approaches, TNSE will need to break its paralysis of fear if it wants to deal with the problems that continue to hang over their current embodiment. Status quo in the goaltending department has almost certainly been a factor preventing Winnipeg from taking the next step. TNSE will need to face this dilemma head-on or brace itself for more seasons of disappointment. The bottom six needs to be improved upon and roster moves will most certainly have to be made to get this team into a position to be successful.

The lingering question is whether TNSE has the capacity to make the tough decision.

The good news is that risk mitigation and good business practices have gotten this organisation to where it is today; a financially successful club that is one of the most vertically integrated in North America, one with huge potential to lead Canadian NHL teams to the promise land. However TNSE has to harness some of the pioneering, risk taking, entrepreneurial spirit that returned NHL hockey to Winnipeg and apply it to its hockey operations.

Take off the blinders, improve your roster and get this club past their seven year playoff drought, or all of that caution may be the ultimate undoing.