The Winnipeg Jets are a bad team that has been a victim of their own paralysis when it comes to decision making to the point that they are a 30th place team that cannot figure out what needs to be done. The Jets are at a crossroads and the decisions that they make in the coming weeks will say far more about their long-term future than anything they have done in the past. For years Kevin Cheveldayoff's lack of long-term vision beyond draft and develop has led to a weird paradox of retaining bad players and letting good players walk because those good players would be blocking spots for young, unproven talents.
The Chris Thorburn Issue
For years there have been complaints about Chris Thorburn and how he is just not a NHL player. For years he has been an everyday player for the Jets and the Atlanta Thrasher before them. Chris Thorburn is not just a player though; he is a representative if the flawed player evaluation process that the Jets employ. Thorburn is paid $1.2 million a year for three years. That contract is indicative of how flawed the Jets are. Thorburn is not a good fourth line player. He is definitely not worth over $1 million a season from the Jets. yet Thorburn just exposes the Jets for their inability to get blinded by the power of "their guys" and refusal to look for better options.
This is the crux of the argument for Lee Stempniak. The argument is not for Stempniak himself, but for what Stempniak represents. He is a player that is skilled enough to play in the top nine a bit, solid enough defensively that he does not have to score to be effective, and is paid little enough that he can be sent to the AHL without counting against the salary cap. In other words, Stempniak is the perfect type of player for a team trying to bring in a bunch of rookies because he can be a safety net if they struggle in camp or he can be waived to the AHL if they do not. There is no losing for a team that signs a player like Stempniak because he covers for unpredictable happenings and costs very little to do so.
The Mark Stuart Issue
This one is a little more pointed: Mark Stuart is an issue for the Winnipeg Jets that has needed to be addressed for a while now. The Winnipeg Jets have $11 million in cap space. They are a budget team, but yet they choose to spend that money on players like Stuart and the aforementioned Thorburn instead of skilled players like Michael Frolik and potentially Dustin Byfuglien. Those skilled players are difference makers and yet they get pissed away to keep physical presences like Stuart and Thorburn who might contribute 10 goals combined in a good year. Might.
The issue is Mark Stuart and how he is seen as the Jets second-best left-side defenceman. He does not get benched when he struggles and gets to play alongside Jacob Trouba to the point where it is hard to tell what type of player Trouba is because it is impossible to evaluate him away from Stuart. The Winnipeg Jets cannot evaluate one of their defenceman because he has played so much alongside one whose signature move is going out of position to hit someone. If you think about it, the Jets have decided that their best young defender was to a veteran who is best at going out of position to hit someone or block shots. And they have the money to replace him, they just refuse to use it.
The Budget Team Arguement
The Winnipeg Jets are a budget team. This means that they will always spend under the salary cap. This should not be an issue if they are superior at both drafting and developing. They are failing at the latter it seems. The Manitoba Moose are last in the AHL and have only 43% CorsiFor. They have been outshot by 347 and have a -60 goal differential. The Moose are not just bad, they are terrible. For a team that is supposed to be focussing on drafting and developing, the Jets have failed to attain the development part of their plan. If they are to thrive in the NHL as a budget team, development needs to be mastered.
The Jets needs to ensure that Nikolaj Ehlers, Nic Petan, Eric Comrie, Chase De Leo, and Josh Morrissey all develop into the players they are meant to be. This needs to be done alongside the ultimate goal of winning because it is very easy to learn how to lose, but very hard to learn how to win. This is why Dale Tallon signed a whole bunch of Lee Stempniak's for the Florida Panthers prior to this year: his young players were able to develop in the AHL while the older players lost a lot. Now that the young players are ready for prime time the Panthers are winning and looking really good for it. Of course there were exceptions to this plan as Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad were in the NHL since they were 18. A majority of the Panthers young players were expected to develop in the AHL until they and the team were ready for them. Last season was a write-off while those young players adjusted to the big leage and this year has been their show. The Panthers finally were able to complete the develop part of the draft and develop process, something that the Jets have never done, even when they were known as the Atlanta Thrashers.
Inaction Leading to More Inaction
The Winnipeg Jets too ages to make a player for player trade in the NHL and for that to happen they had to have a public relations nightmare for the ages. In other words, Cheveldayoff has been super inactive when it comes to trades. I am not talking about making massive trades just because, but tinkering around with the roster to find good third and fourth line players or decent defencemen when there are obvious deficits there makes sense. Until last season that did not happen and low and behold last season was the first year the Jets franchise made the playoffs since the 2006-2007 season. The lack of trades is not the issue though, the lack of sensible moves at any time is. In the off-season, at the trade deadline, in the pre-season the Jets constantly drop the ball when it comes to taking advantage of opportunities to improve their team because of what seems like player loyalty.
Adding small pieces can make a big difference. Look at last season and those additions of Stempniak and Jiri Tlusty. No, they were not big scorers, but they were able to make the Jets that much better that their scorers were able to score just a bit more and play just a bit less every game. Having players that help you make the playoffs is something that the Jets have lacked for years.
Where to Now?
The trade deadline is on March first. That is the date that the Jets have to decide on the future of Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien. Prior to that they need to figure out what they plan on doing going forward both in the short and long term. They need to have proper goals set with how they will go about achieving those goals. It may be imperative to keep Byfuglien because he solidifies the defence more than anything else. It may be important to trade Ladd because his contract demands are too rich for his declining play and that money would be better spent on younger players. Whatever the case is, this needs to happen now. In the longer term, the Jets need to look at the decision making processes that got them to the point where they are tied for last place in the league and figure out what went wrong and how those mistakes are not going to be made again. They need to make a plan and stick to it. They need to stop looking like they have no clue that bad things can happen when you rely on unproven rookies in the professional leagues. The development of any and all players should look intentional and not like it was by surprise. There should be a system in place for young players to join into. And it should already be there if the team is considering drafting and developing to be key to success.
This is going to hurt. There are good players available in free agency, but that takes both money and a willingness from the player in question to sign with the Jets. The team next year amy be bad if Cheveldayoff and the management team is not proactive about getting good players onto the team and squeezing out the bad players. They need to support their young players in the AHL better because the team seems neglected, even though it is known they are not neglecting the team.
If done right, this team could be good in a year or two. If done wrong this team could remain bad for all of eternity. The Jets are at a crossroads and the only map that will guide them is the one they make themselves.