It was a new year and I was pessimistic about the Winnipeg Jets.
Sure they where on a roll but how long could it last ? The top six defensemen where out with injury , a death valley tour (San Jose, Arizona, LA, and Anaheim) was in front of us and Kane was gone again for a good long stretch. I lamented to anyone that would listen that the Jets would be lucky to tread water in January, and that we'd probably be on the outside of the playoff picture once it was all over . Of course the Jets proceeded to make me look foolish by going on a ridiculous points streak in January, peaking with a Chelsea dagger through the heart of Blackhawks fans in a win at the United Center. It was an amazing run, and better yet everyone was going to be back in the line up healthy just before the all star break... What could go wrong?
Fuhget About It
In the two games preceding the all star break the Jets defensive corp began to replenish itself with bodies from the upper end of the depth chart, however something changed. The Jets barely handled Arizona and even though they had a lopsided victory against the anemic Blue Jackets something was off. It looked like the Jets where letting go of the defense first game that saw so many great plays clogging up the neutral zone and where now falling back on a run and gun, let the goal tender worry about defense style of play that got coach Christmas fired last season.
Then things got worse. After the all star break any lunch bucket mentality that had found its way into the Jets game was now gone. Lazy plays and even lazier penalties where now the coat rack on which the Jets hung their hat. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia where all to willing to lure the Jets into a wide open affair and the take advantage of the suddenly frail Jets penalty kill. The blood letting continued with a home game against Dallas, were the once hard nosed Jets descended into the absurd with penalties that went beyond stupid, resulting in a 5-2 embarrassment.
The Way of The Gun
So what's gone wrong? While at first goal tending was offered up by Jets fans as the sacrificial lamb, it seems as though even the best of our goalies can't contend with severe defensive breakdowns and a continuous flow of penalty kill time. So why the 180 degree shift? Whats going on? Even the dark hammer of Pomolian justice could not get these guys playing disciplined hockey against the Stars. So what gives? Is run and gun now the lame horse we're going to ride down to the bottom of the standings?
Then it occurred to me we've seen this before...
Early lasts season everyone's favorite Winnipeg Jets beat hack Gary Lawless wrote a piece about the "Atlanta Association" in which he described a clique of core players that had come out of the ashes of the Atlanta Thrashers and had set up shop in Winnipeg. He described a nifty little club that was basically dictating the style of play and holding coach Noel hostage with lackluster effort . Of course I wrote it off as Gary trying to fill column space and then I participated in every Jets fans favorite pastime, a good ol fashioned Lawless bashing (Lawless is my favorite literary pinata). However maybe Gary scratched the surface of something that he got only slightly wrong.
The Atlanta Outfit
Usually when something goes wrong the first thing that I look at is whats changed. During the months of December and January when the Jets where hitting their stride we where all amazed that they where doing it with a steadily declining defensive corp. Names like Zach Bogosian, Tobias Enstrom, and Jacob Trouba where being replaced with Paul Postma, Ben Chiarot and Adam Pardy. Then in desperation Jay Harrison was brought in to shore the blue line when Mark Stuart was sidelined. At the beginning of the great Jets D-corp decimation Paul Maurice implemented a simplified more defensive game that almost resembled a modified trap. The Jets clogged up the neutral zone and punished players in the defensive zone with the body, while maintaining a quick transition. The plan that was simplified to accommodate depth players was now paying off and it looked like the Jets had a new identity.
And then the Atlanta defensive corp got healthy again.
As the core defensive group returned to action, the play opened up once again and what was once a hard nosed defense, run by an AHL calibre grinder crew, gave way to a slackness in the back end that seemed infect the forwards as well. The buy in to a more workman defensive game seems to have evaporated and given way to old, bad habits. Maybe the Atlanta Association that Gary thought was the domain of the forwards was really the Atlanta mafia that quietly exerted their influence out from the blue line.
Of course what's going on in the dressing room is as Paul Maurice said "Not for public consumption", however I have to wonder, now that all the the old capos are back in the room, is Paul Maurice locked in a battle for the hearts and minds of the soldiers. One also has to wonder if coach Noel once faced the same struggle as he tried to get his guys "To play the right way" .
There is however a big difference between Maurice and Noel. Paul "Make em cry" Maurice has some old country in him and he's seen a lot of different locker room dynamics. If this is the Atlanta crew is trying to muscle in on how the Jets should play the game they may get a surprise when they see their ice time evaporate as Bogosian did against Dallas in the third period of that game.
The challenge doesn't end with Maurice though. If the group dynamic is once again threatening to take another coach hostage, Chevy has to seriously look at veering away from the "steady as she goes" course he's laid out for this club and perhaps send a message while trying to improve the Jets playoff chances. With a sudden new found wealth of defensemen, and some in the Atlanta mafia not putting up the numbers they should, the time might be now to send one out to the onion field, while filling a gaping hole on the Jets third line.
The Four Families
As it stands right now the Jets are still very much in contention to be one of four in the division left standing come play-off time. I'm usually not one for locker room poison theories but you can't deny that the Jets have seen a very sudden shift in their approach to the game lately and the core of this team has a recent history of tuning out its coach. If the Jets are falling back to a run and gun, open style of play, the trailing teams in the west will have no trouble catching up to them in the standings and the leaders will have even less trouble pulling away.
One thing is for certain, as the playoff race heats up if the Jets don't get back to playing a hard nosed defensive game, they'll be bringing a knife to a gun fight.