It has been a while since I have written something for Arctic Ice Hockey. The largest reason for this has been pure exasperation over how last season unfolded. In a five day work week Wednesday is sometimes referred to as "hump day." Meaning, you get over the hump and you are half way to your destination of the weekend. Last season was perceived as a "hump year" of sorts, only the Jets failed to get over the playoff hump and the team seemed to stall. That's not to say that there were not positive developments last season. Jacob Trouba had a phenomenal rookie campaign, Mark Scheifele appeared to have established himself as legitimate NHL center and the team appears to have found the right man behind the bench in Paul Maurice.
Those are just some of the examples of the positive events that occurred for the Jets franchise. The issue is that the positive strides that the team makes do not seem to be large enough to catch or overtake the rest of the division and propel the team to the playoffs. While the cries for change have been deafening at times among the Jets' fanbase, it would appear that the franchise is sticking with the same core for another year. You would be hard pressed to find another team that has committed to a middling collection of players for so long. But in doing so they are showing that they believe in the potential for internal growth within this core. By doubling down again on the same roster they are also upping the pressure on both the players and management. If this vote of confidence doesn't pay off, it'll be an indictment on both the players and the front office. The players would shoulder some blame for not being able to deliver despite a complete commitment from the front office and a change in coaching to help light a fire underneath them. And the front office would be to blame for not being able to accurately evaluate what they have on their roster and make the necessary moves to reach the goals that the franchise has publicly stated.
The third element of this, of course, is the fact that this summer is the first time that a group of season ticket holders are able to chose not to renew their tickets. There is no question that Winnipeg has some of the most passionate fans in the NHL, and they displayed it prior to the team coming back by selling out the MTS Centre, in blind faith, for 3-5 years depending on their seating. While I have no doubt in my mind that the arena will sell out again this season, the Jets can't expect people to continue to make a serious financial commitment in order to watch a team remain idle. While the team has made some improvements over the past few seasons, the results have remained the same. Every team in the NHL is trying to improve constantly, so in order to overtake teams in the standings you cannot rely on incremental change. It requires sound strategy, risks and innovation to consistently thrive as a franchise in sports. If the franchise feels that this unit can achieve at a level that they are yet to display, then maybe they are right. But if the roster again fails to reach the goals that they set for themselves, it is time to re-evaluate everything and everyone within the organization to determine where the weaknesses reside.
If the Jets were to revamp their roster, they don't need to look to far to see an example of the city supporting a new beginning. The Winnipeg Blue Bombers are in the first season under new GM Kyle Walters and feature a locker room that has been whitewashed of all their leaders from the past. It is an inconsistent team that is destined to have ups and downs for the remainder of the season. But it features players all hungry to fight for their footing in the league, clearly identified cornerstones to move forward with and no short term stop gaps. If you can't execute as the coach has instructed, or you aren't displaying "compete", you are replaced. Fan favourite and veteran leader Alex Suber didn't see the field prior to being traded, because he had been outperformed by the new additions. While we don't know whether or not the Bombers will be able to reach their ultimate goal, the image of a young team building towards something, no players being entitled to anything clearly has resonated with the city and the crowds are reflective of that. While I would never advocate losing on purpose, an investment in the teams young talent surrounded by a few character veterans would create a situation where players like Scheifele and Trouba could get their reps in and learn from their mistakes. The team would need to identify which veterans they want to help usher in the new era and keep the young guns in line, and move the rest for more prospects and draft picks. While the team would obviously experience a decline in the win column, there would at least be a direction for the team that would be clear to everyone.
There clearly would be some disappointment if the team were to go in that direction, but there is always excitement surrounding change and the unknown. Even if it doesn't work out, new and exciting can be more appealing than the known and underwhelming. Going back to the CFL metaphor, this is the team giving Buck Pierce one last shot as a franchise quarterback.
While it may not seem this way, this is not meant to be a bleak outlook for the upcoming season. Teams can turn things around in a blink of the eye, but the most important step in changing your future is identifying where you are today. The players have clearly been frustrated with how the last few seasons have unfolded, and one of the teams most crucial pieces, Ondrej Pavelec, has reportedly shown up in the best shape of his life. The team has committed to Paul Maurice for the next four seasons and will clearly look to build around him and his coaching style. Maurice clearly had the attention of the locker room when he took over last season and with an actual training camp should be able to properly prepare the roster to play the way he wants them to. What's in the past is in the past for the Winnipeg Jets and we will soon see if front office's gamble pays off.