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What defines a real fan?

What makes a fan of a sports team a fan? Is it a desire to see it succeed? Or is it unwavering support?

NHL: Minnesota Wild at Winnipeg Jets Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports

There have been a couple of tweets about Winnipeg Jets fans I want to express feelings about. The first is a comparison between two vastly different types of people, both whom claim to be fans of the Jets.

The Juxtaposition of the Fan and the Cheerleader

If were to presume this person’s meaning (and I do presume), there is no room in sports fandom for a critical eye. You either love everything or love nothing about a team. If you’re like me, this stance doesn’t sit well.

The former category is labelled “Jets Fans”, and the quotation marks are clearly meant to convey that people in this category claim to be fans but aren’t. The latter category is not only labelled without quotations, but also as Real Jets Fans, suggesting an elite class, if you will, of Jets fans. One that, of course, will only cheer for the team.

The reality is that these two different types of Jets fans are supportive but critical fans, and mere cheerleaders. The former group is defined in the tweet as saying some players suck, calling for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff fired, and crying “free Petan.” The thing is, there is a reason that someone self-identifying as a Jets fan would say those things. Players like Brandon Tanev and Matt Hendricks (and Ben Chiarot, Chris Thorburn, Mark Stuart, Ondrej Pavelec, Jim Slater, Anthony Peluso, James Wright, Tanner Glass, modern-day Dmitry Kulikov, and comparatively Shawn Matthias) do suck. As much as hockey people talk about players being good in the room, protecting teammates, putting it all out there, etc., a good player does at least two of the following: scores goals, moves the puck consistently and effectively via skating and passing, and provides good defence by limiting the opposing team’s offensive opportunity compared to his own (the latter two are where this whole advanced stats thing comes in). The players mentioned above don’t do any of that. Therefore, people who know a bit about what they’re talking about will say they suck. A lot of coaches and GMs won’t, but they came up embedded in hockey culture where intangible qualities are as equally valued as tangible ones.

The ones who tweet out #Free<insert prospect’s name here> do so because they understand what a player brings to a team, and what a player could potentially bring to a team. They also understand that there are players in the team’s lineup who bring less. We Are Jets Fans’ tweet specifically mentions “free Petan,” and there’s a reason for that. Petan, while his offence hasn’t blossomed quite yet, has posted strong underlying numbers when playing in the NHL, only for his offence capability to be stifled by players who can’t be relied on to move the puck or finish plays, before being demoted, benched, or reassigned without having had the chance to build chemistry with players he could work well with. The worry is not only that Petan will end up turning bust, hurting the team and Petan’s career, but will set a precedent for future non-blue chip prospects to be similarly mishandled.

The fans who talk about firing Chevy (as well as head coach Paul Maurice), do so because there are serious problems with both. Chevy is old-fashioned, and a large chunk of his player acquisitions have been players who get heaps of praise for their intangibles, but who don’t produce points or register good underlying numbers. Chevy doesn’t realize that their intangibles don’t translate into better on-ice results, and that frustrates people. Same thing with Maurice, who fails at everything a coach should be (more on that later). It frustrates people to see people who are so clearly failing at their jobs, to the detriment of the team, get extensions and praise while we invest our time and money in a team that can neither achieve sustainable success or thoroughly entertain us. Of course, this isn’t unique to the Jets. Every team in the NHL today has had a bad coach and/or general manager at some point or another.

We Are Jets Fans asserts that a Real Jets Fan only cheers for the team. A Real Jets Fan never utters one iota of negativity about the team he cheers for. He (I’m calling him he for simplicity’s sake) calls them Real Jets Fans, but all they are cheerleaders, and they do much more to hurt a team than the Jets Fans he denounces for criticizing the team. Nobody ever realized their potential because everyone around them said they were perfectly fine as is. If someone’s failing, there needs to be someone to say how in order for the problem to be fixed. If the person doing the criticizing is paying the the target of their criticism (the way fans of a sports team do by sinking large chunks of their disposable income into tickets to see them live do), then it’s all the more a responsibility to continue criticizing them. Perhaps the worry is that the criticism will cause the team to relocate. Here’s what happens if the cheerleaders get their way: people will stop criticizing the Jets. They will make questionable moves that hurt on-ice results, but because literally everyone is waving flags, pom-poms, and rally towels and saying how great a job every last person in the organization is doing, and more importantly continuing to funnel money into the higher-ups’ coffers, nothing will change. Eventually, the sustained lack of success will breed apathy into even the most loyal cheerleaders, and the support, both financial and otherwise, will dry up. And without public attention and assets, the franchise will move, either cleaning up its act when faced with a fanbase that isn’t merely happy to be here, or waste more years leeching off the same unconditional support in the new market until the process repeats. As Jets fans, we owe it to the Jets’s best players, and to ourselves as paying fans to call out every little thing bad with the organization in the hopes it creates the best possible version of itself and keeps earning the money it needs to thrive after the novelty and euphoria of merely existing wears off.

The Paradox of Favouring Failure

BlueBomberJet insinuates that if you cheer for a team you want them to win every game, no matter what. I have a serious problem with this. It boils down to the fact that the Winnipeg Jets aren’t a team that is capable in its current form of sustained, sustainable success.

Matt’s tweet states that a result that gets head coach Paul Maurice fired is a good one. I have to agree. Beating Pittsburgh 7-1 may be fun in the moment, but the Jets aren’t capable of keeping it up long-term. There are three things a good coach does. Firstly, it’s implementing a system that balances a good team structure with allowing the parts that comprise it, the players, to excel with their unique combination of skills and skill level. As of November 3, the Jets are 29th in the league with a 45.94 Corsi% at even strength (per Corsica). They are 17th in the league with 38 goals and 10th with 34 goals against. They are 17th with a 17.5 Power Play Percentage, and 19th with an 80.5 Penalty Kill Percentage (per Failing at shot distribution, offensive production, defence, and both the power play and penalty kill, it’s clear that the Jets’ system is ineffective at both proper defensive structure and allowing players proper use of their skills.

Secondly, a good coach has to ice the absolute best lineup possible. At forward, it would be safe to say that the best lineup possible would be something like this:

Nikolaj Ehlers-Mark Scheifele-Blake Wheeler
Kyle Connor-Bryan Little-Patrik Laine
Nic Petan-Mathieu Perreault-Marko Dano
Adam Lowry-Andrew Copp-Joel Armia
Toby Enstrom-Dustin Byfuglien
Josh Morrissey-Jacob Trouba
Tyler Myers-Tucker Poolman
Connor Hellebuyck
Steve Mason

Scheifele and Ehlers lock in as two thirds of the first line. You put either Wheeler or Laine on that top line and it would be very productive. Little, plus whichever of Wheeler or Laine he ends up with, would be good scoring, and helps Connor develop as the top-six winger he was drafted to be. An offensively capable veteran like Perreault works well as a top-six forward in his own right, but playing centre, the most important of the three forward roles, on the third line is a good way to spread scoring depth throughout the lineup and provide some offensive mentorship for Petan and Dano, who have the potential to be solid offensive top-nine, or even top-six forwards, but have been misused. With some sheltering, they could get accustomed to producing offence in the NHL and grow into larger, tougher roles. Y’know, the whole “develop” part of “draft and develop.” Lowry, Copp, and Armia make for a skilled fourth line, each member of which is capable of producing some offence. On defence, Byfuglien and Enstrom have historically been a very effective pairing, and still are, as Byfuglien is still a top-notch point-producer on defence and Enstrom, even with the loss of most of his offensive production is still elite defensively with his ability to move the puck and drive possession. Trouba and Morrissey, a bigger and more physical guy and a shorter puck-mover, similarly complement each other. Myers, who has a number of deficiencies in his game but has a lot of size and some puck-moving talent, and the 24-year-old rookie Poolman, would probably excel in a sheltered third-pairing role. Hellebuyck has earned bona fide starter status, and Mason will probably finish the season as a good backup.

That is not how the lineup has shaken out, however. Shawn Matthias has been a good bottom-six forward in terms of offensive production, and would probably fit in as a good fourth-line forward, but not on this Jets team if it uses its most optimal lineup. Since it’s not, Matthias, who’s production has dropped dramatically since joining the Jets, continues to be in the lineup. Brandon Tanev and Matt Hendricks are players cut from the same cloth, the classical fourth-liner, used to play with grit and “energy” in short bursts totaling quite a bit fewer than 10 minutes per game, hit a lot, block a handful of shots, provide leadership and intangibles, fight in order to “protect teammates”, and win faceoffs in the case of centres like Hendricks. Where a modern Cup contending NHL team would play more talented players in these roles, pressing advantages, rolling four lines that can produce offence, and gaining the ability to dial back the top lines’ playing time to reduce their fatigue, these classical fourth lines fail to tilt the ice in their favour, fail to defend by keeping the puck away from their goaltender, and fail to produce offence. Meanwhile, Dano has been a healthy scratch for five games and four of the last five, Petan is in the minors now. Brendan Lemieux, who doesn’t have much upside as those two, is in the lineup. Tanev actually has been playing on the third line, when he should be in the minors along with Hendricks. On defence, the team has Dmitry Kulikov. While I liked his signing, it’s more clear these days that he’s not the solid puck-mover he used to be. And of course Ben Chiarot is still a regular in the lineup. Tyler Myers is good enough to be in the lineup, but he’s overused. Tucker Poolman, who should be paired with Myers on a sheltered third pairing, has been healthy scratched for eight games, including the last five straight, and is now back in the minors. I am aware some players are injured, but my look at the Jets lineup assumes the rare occasion that the roster is healthy. This is not an optimal use of the Jets players. I am aware some players are injured, but my look at the Jets lineup assumes the rare occasion that the roster is healthy. So Maurice fails at using the parts available to him in the most optimal way.

The third part is the intangible element, getting the players to play the best they can and stay disciplined, as well as keep morale up. The Jets couldn’t put together a good winning streak until the very end of the season last year, so he’s not generally very good at getting the most out of his team. They were among the fifth-most penalized team at the end of last season, suggesting he’s not great at keeping them disciplined (I will wait until more than a month into the season before concluding whether the Jets’ current rank of 24th-fewest penalties is a trend or an outlier). As for keeping up morale, one need look no fewer than how he treats the flawed-but-potentially-good youngsters on the roster. Not putting players like Dano, Petan, and Poolman in a position to succeed, when they’re given any opportunity to play in the NHL at all, and benching them when of course they don’t produce results, despite them actually playing well, won’t do them any favours psychologically. But the real kicker is that time last season where Hellebuyck had a good game, and then was benched the next game in favour of noted bad goaltender Ondrej Pavelec because, as Maurice put it in front of the whole media, Hellebuyck doesn’t play good in consecutive games.

So what does he do well? Sure he’s one of the winningest coaches of all time, but that’s a product of his (frankly baffling) longevity, as he’s been coaching for roughly 20 years. He happens to be only six losses away from the most in NHL history, behind Scotty Bowman, a coach with over 2000 regular season games under his belt, and Al Arbour, who himself has over 780 wins. His point percentage is only 51.1%, while his win percentage is 43.8%. He is not good.

By and large, the NHL truly has a long way to go as far as recognizing the process of playing a hockey game. As much as it makes me look and sound pompous (and that is not my intention at all), it’s true. The Canadian national hockey program has only in the last decade wrapped its collective head around the idea that the best team is most of the time the team with the best players. With that in mind, it’s not hard to understand that wins will encourage a team to continue doing what it’s doing, even if it’s not sustainable, and losses will pressure them into making changes, even if it’s not necessary. Think back to the Kings back in 2014, when everyone was saying it was time to buyout underperforming Mike Richards. They wound up keeping him a year past the point they should have, leading to a disappointing season he partially spent in the AHL, and that was because they won the Stanley Cup that year, encouraging a belief that they were doing things right. They’ve made the playoffs only once in the three years since their last championship, which incidentally led to the firing of a coach who had outlived his effectiveness with that team.

Which leads back to the issue of cheering against the Winnipeg Jets. Yes, there are Jets fans, and they are legitimate Jets fans, who would like to see the Jets rack up a handful of losses. It’s not a hatred of the team, it’s paradoxically hoping that all these failures in the short team will lead to sustained success in the long-term, and that that long-term success will come a bit sooner the sooner those failures come and force a real change. The Winnipeg Jets are winning right now. Their record is good, and they’re coming off shellackings of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Dallas Stars, two darling franchises boasting some of the NHL’s premier talent. But they’ve done so with a top-heavy forward core that puts too much pressure on the top to succeed, and a red-hot goaltender. Players go on slumps. The top scorers on a team will encounter a stretch where they can’t but a goal, and every goaltender from Carey Price to Ondrej Pavelec will have a bad handful of games sooner or later. The best teams, the ones who earn home-ice advantage in the playoffs, and the ones who legitimately contend for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, are the ones who play well enough in between the goals and saves to make up for declining results with a sheer quantity of attempts.

The Jets aren’t equipped to do this, because their top-heavy roster, relatively flush with dead weight players filling classical gritensity-style roles, failing to drive the play and relying too much on the goalie, is a design, whether intentional or not, of a head coach who decides on these sub-optimal lineups and poor systems, and a general manager who continues to add sub-optimal tools to the toolbox and hire an unskilled craftsman. These problems won’t go away unless their causes are dealt with, i.e. the coach and general manager getting fired, and that won’t happen as long as the belief persists that they’re doing a good job by getting wins, therefore losses will get them fired and hopefully replaced with someone capable of doing better.

The way I see it, it is essentially no different than someone whose favourite team is near the bottom of the standings, who wants that team to tank in order to increase the odds that they get the first-overall pick in the draft. It’s no different than someone who has to endure cheering for a team with a closed championship window whose management wants to continue adding and retooling in order to just get to the playoffs when the only sensible thing to do would be cast off those old pieces in order to rebuild a prospect pool (think Calgary circa 2012). Do those people want the team to fail? In an overall sense, no, but they understand that a win here or there, even a complete rout of the incumbent Evil Empire, won’t change the team’s long-term fortunes or make a Stanley Cup any likelier. They want to get the impending bad times. and make no mistake they are impending, out of the way sooner so that the team can start contending and entertaining its fans sooner. Some Jets fans want Maurice gone so the Jets can have a coach who will ice the best lineup possible, implement quality systems, and rally the team. They want Cheveldayoff gone so they can have a GM who will make that happen while assembling the best roster possible. And that won’t happen unless the Jets get to a certain point in the season without having had any real success.

Until then, it’s just a combination of a team with the potential for greatness propping up a totally detrimental staff to a level of mediocrity just good enough to convince the people getting their money anyway that the status quo is good.