On a hot summer day In 1972, two men burst into a branch of the Chase Manhattan bank in Brooklyn attempting to rob it. They were interrupted by the police, and through a tense and desperate night, they held the occupants of the bank hostage while the authorities negotiated outside. The hostages later reported becoming strangely fond of their captors and some even said they shared some laughs with the would-be criminals. The incident ended tragically with one of the men dead and the other receiving a twenty year jail sentence.
Strangely, as I muddle through the dog days of summer as a Winnipeg Jets fan, I think I know something about what those hostages must have been feeling during that tense humid night in 1972. For myself and others, the summer of 2014 has been a hot, frustrating time and even though we kind of like the guys that are holding us hostage, we know in the back of our minds that it's not going to end well.
The Summer of Jets
I was actually strangely eager to get the off-season started this year, I was ... you guessed it... optimistic. It was going to be the summer of the Jets. The St. Johns IceCaps went to the Calder cup final, a lot of our prospects were firing on all cylinders and even though Chevy insisted Ondrej Pavelec was the starter, there was a real sense that the Jets just might buy him out. Michael Hutchinson was set to be signed to a contract, word on the street was that James Reimer wanted to play in Winnipeg, cap space was available, and there was a decent crop of UFA talent on hand to possibly shore up the Jets' depth issues. I even let myself believe that a trade was possible! I was convinced that with all these wheels in motion, the Winnipeg Jets organization had a great chance to build a better hockey club for next season.
Instead I was told at gun point to hit the floor and keep my mouth shut.
The compliance buyout window approached, arrived, and went, without so much as a sound out of the dark tower at 300 Portage Ave. It appeared that Pavelec would still be a Jet when they hit the ice in September and the best the hostages could hope for was that an inexperienced Hutchinson could successfully challenge the organization's golden boy for a 1B spot in the coming season. I'm really not sure what the expected outcome here is. Pavelec has posted a declining save percentage since he's arrived in Winnipeg; is the goal to let Hutchinson push Pavelec into becoming a better goaltender? Or is the organization really ready to take a step away from Pavelec and let Hutchinson take on a 1B portion of the workload? To add to the mystery, Chevy said there might be a third party pushing the goaltenders at camp. All of this is a painful way to fix what has become the Winnipeg Jets' biggest problem. Simply ejecting Pavelec and bringing in a solid journeyman goaltender to bridge the divide between now and when a Jets prospect can take over the reigns seemed like a change that needed to happen. However, at this point it started to look like our bank robbers didn't really have a plan.
Uh oh, its the cops, we might be here for a while.
After the buyout period came and went , we finally had news from the glass house where Eaton's once stood. The Winnipeg Jets proudly announced that they had signed locker room favourite, punching bag, and not-so-great NHL hockey player Chris Thorburn to a three year, $1.2 mil per year contract. Wait.... what? We're going to overpay for a fourth line guy whose main claims to fame are stopping Zdeno Chara's fist with his face and being Evander Kane's best bud? Oh and we're also going to give him some job security to boot so he can occupy a prospect spot for the next three seasons? The explanation from the glass tower wast that several teams were interested in Chris and he needed to be locked up immediately. Yes I'm sure the Tokyo Katanna's are pretty angry that they lost out in the Chris Thorburn sweepstakes! From the outside looking in, this has the appearance of either Chevy being taken advantage of again by a smart agent, or, sadly, incompetence. There's just no other way to describe why anyone would agree to this contract. Clearly it was going to be a long wait for the hostages, as they looked on with fear and doubt.
It's okay, everyone. We've sent for Pizza and drinks, we should all be going home soon.
As the free agent feeding frenzy heated up and talented players landed at rival clubs, the hostages began to become despondent. Would we ever come out of this alive? Finally, to our relief, the lovable losers in charge made some headway. They signed Mathieu Perreault, a fairly talented third line power play specialist from Anaheim, to reasonable money and a three year term. He is definitely an upgrade on Olli Jokinen and even the propeller heads gave the deal their stamp of approval as Perreault passed the crucial Corsi test. Surely this was just the beginning, the floodgates were now opened and plenty of good Corsi-approved players were still to be had on the open market. Our ordeal was starting to get better, it wouldn't be long now until Chevy started signing players and getting us ready to make the final push to the postseason. There was one nagging problem however. Our captors had set an arbitration date with one of the Jets' most promising acquisitions. Michael Frolik was without a contract going into his final RFA year with the Jets. Picked up for a song in what was certainly a pity trade/salary dump from the Chicago Blackhawks, Frolik surprised many by being one of the Jets' best players in the 2013/14 season. Fans unanimously agreed that Frolik was one guy that needed to get locked up this summer, even if a slight overpay was in the cards.
The negotiators on the phone
As our hostage crisis carried on from an afternoon of frustration to an evening of tension, another blow hit an already beleaguered fan base. Allan Walsh, the player agent sensei that had negotiated Chevy out of his pants when the Jets re-signed Pavelec, was plying his trade once more, hypnotizing management with tactics and guile in negotiating a new deal for Michael Frolik. No doubt Chevy felt he needed to get tough with Walsh on this go-round and eagerly set an arbitration date, even as the hostages cringed in the corner. We were all cheering for Chevy on this one, but we also knew he probably wasn't going to win. Chevy played chicken with Walsh as they raced towards the guard rail of arbitration and Chevy blinked. Michael Frolik ended up signing a one year bridge deal at 3.3 million dollars, hardly the "lock him up" deal the Jets hostages were hoping for. No doubt Chevy was helped along with silver-tongued promises of revisiting negotiations before July of next year, but at the end of the day we know that Chevy just negotiated away any leverage he may have had in securing Michael Frolik long term at a reasonable rate.
What country do you want to go to Sal? I don't know, Wyoming?
After giving up most of their ammunition and coming to the realization that their plan for the third summer of Jets was ill-conceived, our wannabe bank robbers formulated a new plan. "We'll go back to the well", they thought, there are plenty of ex-Winnipeg Jets looking for one-year two-way deals, and so they began the great re-sign . The old castoffs were brought back, dusted off, and signed to two way deals. Adam Pardy, Keaton Ellerby, and Matt Halischuk all got two-way deals south of one million dollars to round out the "depth" portion of the Winnipeg Jets roster. As fans sat around waiting for good news, they cringed as the Jets continued to sign retreads while the rest of the Western Conference seemed to be taking up positions on the roof and bringing in the SWAT team. Jets management is now at the point where they're asking for buses and a plane to Ecuador.
As we board the buses and head to the airport, anger is turning into a resigned acceptance of our fate. If nothing changes in the next month, the Winnipeg Jets will be icing almost exactly the same team that bowed out of the regular season last year seven points out of a wild card spot. The only roster spots that will have changed are the addition of Michael Hutchinson (maybe....) and Mathieu Perreault . Jets fans are currently clinging to the faint hope that Hutchinson will emerge as a goaltending superstar and supplant Ondrej Pavelec from the number one goaltending position, while Paul Maurice manages to weave some more magic and turn this underachieving crew into an over-achieving crew. All in all, it is faint hope indeed as we look around the conference and see other teams locked and loaded, with laser sights pointed directly at the crest on our chests.
With all this doom and gloom around, one fact remains: we still have to play the games. Teams that are favorites at the beginning the season, for reasons beyond their control, can flame out and go away while dark horses can come out of nowhere. Another fact also presents itself though: Jets fans shouldn't have to be held captive to faint hope, they should be able to look to the season ahead and have a reasonable expectation of success, and this year that expectation has not been met.
It begs the question, what happens if we're effectively out of the playoffs by Christmas? Or if we end the season in the same shape as last year? Who takes the blame and what changes are made?
One thing I do know for sure, is that when our dog day afternoon is over, someone's not making it out alive.