January 09 2014 10:27AM
In debating where the Jets are headed as a franchise, it's worth considering other teams that have been similarly constructed in the past. As a long time Oilers fan, the comparables that come to mind most easily for me come from that franchise. I am starting there, but it may not be the best comparison we find during the season.
Yet for some time, I've felt like the Jets compare well to the teams that arrived after Lord Stanley slipped away in 2006 and Chris Pronger left town for reasons of fit and happiness. The club turned small roster holes into massive mistakes through loyalty and budgets and pride. They used a certain way of seeing the game to justify shipping out good players for worse ones, and the GM left his fans in the cold while talking of evaluation and patience.
If we fast forward from that summer to opening night of 2009, I think you'll see what I mean.
2009/2010 Edmonton Oilers
It's easy now to talk about a decade lost, but when 2009 arrived, the team was just three years out of the show and had acquired a brain trust alien to the 'Boys on the Bus,' generating genuine excitement. Kevin Lowe had found some limited success as a GM, but his flaws were clear, and Craig MacTavish had lost his touch with the roster some time during his year long public flogging of Dustin Penner.
Enter Steve Tambellini and Pat Quinn.
Steve Tambellini was sold to fans as one of the smartest guys in the room on a successful rival and had just gone through his first full summer, making major headlines by signing Khabibulin and hunting for Heatley. New coach Pat Quinn has long been a legend in Canadian hockey and promised a heavier, harder to play against style of hockey from the 'keep it simple, stupid' coaching tree.
The 2009 Oilers were truly awful, we know now. Injuries played a part, as did luck. Pat Quinn was embarassed by better coaches, and the team didn't have the sort of forward group the Jets currently have. Tambellini traded Kyle Brodziak in the summer of 2009 to a division rival just one year after the team let Curtis Glencross hitchhick out of town.
This comparable is not to say that the Jets are a 30th place team destined for three 1st overall picks. Instead, this comp shows us that a certain way of evaluating the game led this franchise down a dark path from mediocre to miserable, and the Jets are not immune to following this model in their quest to compete.
I think the comparison starts with Pat Quinn and Claude Noel. Both are media favourites for giving a good quote and always being available. Quinn's press conferences became a bit of a side show in a miserable season - the first of the Oilers last place finishes. Both coaches were given experienced support that they didn't use well enough. Quinn had Renney and Wayne Flemming. Flemming in particular acquired a bit of an outsider status, and Renny somehow moved into the Head Coaching spot with a clean bill of shame. Noel has Perry Pearn, and yet allows Pascal Vincent to fail three years running.
But beyond the superficial similarities and conjecture, the two actually hold a fair amount in common. Effort, battle, and desire were the key words and given the rhetorical significance of being the difference between success and failure. For both coaches, effort was shown through physical play - shots, blocks, hits, fights - and desire through board battles and individual sacrifice.
Both teams used a structure that simply isn't used at the NHL level, though different from each other. Quinn had his centre swoop to the corner and skate alongside the defender to give him a 5 foot lateral pass off the boards on the breakout. His next play was a give and go with a stationary winger. It's a Bantam play for when your best players are all at centre and your opponents play as individuals and come one after another, rather than in a cohesive unit. The Oilers had a hell of a time getting out of that corner with the puck. And Quinn's insistence on simple dump entries and contact in the offensive zone didn't match with a two-man exit strategy, or the team's limited size, or their relatively better ability to move and handle the puck.
The Jets, meanwhile, use a broad spread in transition and we see them get hemmed in when Stuart can't make the long passes necessary, and when Clitsome, Byfuglien, or Trouba make mistakes on those long plays, and when Scheifele tries to carry through the middle with no puck support at all. The Bruins picked them apart in the space between the top of the circles and red line in the Jets' end because of their horizontal spread and vertical gaps. The Blackhawks eat them alive in the same space at the other end for the same reasons. Their forecheck to start the season was a 2-1-2 stack play that was beaten with one pass. And even now they try to skip the neutral zone in a Division where neutral zone control is literally the difference between wins and losses.
Quinn was absolutely eaten alive by spreading out his talent and refusing to line match. Claude Noel is much more sensitive to line matching, but is beaten at it on a nightly basis and it's a genuine problem. As I write this, Bylsma has hemmed the Jets in their zone with the Malkin line against Thorburn and Mark Stuart. Not surprisingly, Malkin set up shop in the left corner (where those two players play) and delivered a goal to Jussi Jokinen's stick.
Which brings us to the roster construction, but more importantly, the roster use.
Opening Night Roster
Lowetide looks back at all the opening rosters for the Oilers often. It's a useful exercise, and with hindsight, we can cringe at these Pat Quinn Oilers.
- Jacques - Horcoff - Hemsky
- Penner - Cogliano - Brule
- O'Sullivan - Comrie - Stone
- Moreau - Gagner - Stortini
This forward group looks absurd now, as all of JF Jacques, Brule, O'Sullivan, Comrie, Moreau, and Stortini fell out of the league in the seasons to follow. But in large part that's because of the performance of this squad. Patrick O'Sullivan managed 191 shots on the year, but potted just 5% of them. He's no Blake Wheeler, but that's a lot of bad luck. And only three players played 80+ games - Penner, Cogliano, and Tom Gilbert on defence. That's a lot of injury.
But the focus has to be on the usage. After a combined 90 points in his first two seasons as an 18 and 19 year old, Sam Gagner started on the 4th line on the premise of 'earning' his offensive minutes. For Jets fans, it's not unlike Noel's insistence that O'Dell play off the fourth line, or that Scheifele 'learn' multiple roles on a hockey club by playing over his head with Matt Halischuk.
JF Jacques on the first line isn't quite the same as Chris Thorburn on the second (now the third with Scheifele and Kane delivering offence), but it's not far off. It comes from the idea that hockey can be won with effort and will and force, that adrenaline trumps execution, and execution trumps planning. It also comes from seeing hockey as a game of space and geography. Thorburn creates space and goes to the dangerous geography in front of the net. He's still without a goal on the season and is a massive defensive liability on his off-wing, but if you simply made a map of his game, Claude Noel would give it an A+.
To some degree, both coaches sabotage the skilled players to give the 'simple' players a push.
And whatever things we can say about Ethan Moreau (and we can say a lot - he took constant penalties in the offensive end and was awful), or Zach Stortini, or Ryan Stone, it's hard to say they're worse than the collection of Wright, Slater, Peluso, Thorburn, or Tangradi in the Jets' bottom grouping. Both are shallow groups that made the skill players look worse by requiring they play hard minutes and from behind.
If we take a slightly broader view, we see that both teams had solutions in-house. Glencross and Brodziak make the 2009 Oilers a much better hockey club. Burmistrov, Santorelli, Wellwood, and dare I say, even Antropov could have filled in the gaps in the Jets' forward group.
- Grebeshkov - Gilbert
- Staios - Souray
- Visnovsky - Smid
This was the epicentre of the Oilers' disaster, and for all the Jets' foibles, nothing can compare to the chaos Quinn inspired in this group. Smid was playing (uncomfortably and never again) on his off-side. Staios played up the roster before being traded, and Mark Stuart's ice time could be an ode to that coaching blunder. Souray played just 37 games, was the defensive leader in corsi numbers and still -19 thanks in large part to 150 minutes with Steve 'black hole' Staios. Grebeshkov was a wanderer akin to Jacob Trouba, and Gilbert and Souray were eventually paired to take on the toughs with fans yelling about Souray's +/- and how Gilbert didn't look like their idea of a top-2 defender.
The aging Russian netminder was given a 4 year deal at $3.75M a season that summer. Everyone knew the contract was too long and too dear, but many accepted that he was a better goalie when he signed than anything the Oilers had. He had battle level and athleticism, a good season in Chicago, and a Cup ring.
The Pavelec deal was a little different in that he was an in-house solution and was being paid in part on the premise of development. Nevertheless, Khabi led the Oilers with a 3.03 GAA and .909 sv % in just 18 games (he was injured, if you can believe it). Pav's best season for the Jets was a .906 sv% for a similar cap hit.
For the Oilers, Dubnyk was sent away for waiver concerns to start the year and Delauriers carried the load (down the mineshaft). Montoya is no one's idea of a long term solution, but has won a handful of games the Jets might have otherwise lost. So the Jets win in backup netminder.
The best defender on the club might have been Lubomir Visnovsky. Coach Quinn hated the man, but he was very alone in that assessment. Visnovsky (Vis) was traded in this season for Ryan Whitney and a 6th round pick. Whitney would have 27 points in 31 games to start the following season before his career went off the rails due to known congential problems in his ankles and feet.
That deal was brutal for the Oilers and set them back another couple years, and it was made on behalf of a coach that was clearly not the solution. Fans and hockey people alike recognized the skill of Lubo. He carried his way out of trouble, had exceptional patience and passing, and generated offence through quiet composure and slick puck skills. For Quinn, Visnovsky over-handled the puck and used his edges to defend when he should have used his shoulders. I'm sure Quinn yelled 'HIT SOMEBODY' at that team's version of Tobias Enstrom, and that's certainly not the fault of the player.
But while Vis and Enstrom are most alike in style, I think there is potential that Byfuglien gets the Vis treatment by the franchise. He has obvious skill, has a track record of success, but just isn't quite the player on-lookers want him to be. He's forever a square peg with a coach who uses a drill press in creating perfect circular holes all over the roster. For reasons of fit and desperation on a team without a strong handle of what's wrong with the on-ice product, it's possible Byfuglien gets moved this season for a player of the 'does more with less' ilk.
If Claude Noel was Mike Babcock, it would be a decision fans might have to accept. But Claude Noel is close to being shown the door. In Byfyglien's only season as a defender under another coach, he scored 53 points and was -2 on a team that was -46. Even if you think his play is poor this year, it's possible you're watching the work of the coach that won't be here next season. Take it from the 2009 Oilers - the word of the departing coach is a very poor reason to move a talented player.
I think the 2014 Jets have some similar parts to the 2009 Oilers. In all truth, a different coach would have gotten a lot more out of this group and that one, and we flatter ourselves as Jets fans to think the group we cheer on is more talented as individuals. The path these players took was in large part due to a lost season in Rexall Place. But with the Vis trade and the team loaning Souray to another club's AHL team after a summer of angry (and petty) to-and-fro, the Oilers' defence group was disassembled before another coach could show its worth. And from that, Gilbert was put in a position to fail, Grebeshkov banished to Russia, and eventually even Smid moved down the road.
In the same way, the Jets may never allow us an insight into what Byfuglien could be with more structure and puck support, or what Ron Hainsey could have been in a suitable role. And the result isn't just lost seasons for those men, it's the potential that Bogosian and Trouba get put in over their heads and set up to fail, that the prospects get rushed, and that the team enters a perpetual rebuild.
Why Do This?
There is a broad debate about how this team will take a step forward that (I assure you) is only heating up in the second half of year three of the Jets. Right now we hear often from the mainstream media that the team can't handle Byfuglien's mistakes. Earlier in the year we heard about Kane's inability to play with his teammates and poor attitude (Hemsky fans can nod along to that narrative). Prior to this season, Bryan Little wasn't a #1 centre and Ron Hainsey was holding Bogosian back. Alex Burmistrov had too little offence and Nik Antropov was too soft. On this site, Olli Jokinen, Mark Stuart, James Wright, and Chris Thorburn have taken heat at different times throughout 2013. (Jim Slater would make the list if could stay healthy long enough for me to criticize him)
As fans (and media) we're better at knowing what we don't like than where the solutions are to be found.
Part of the challenge is knowing just what team the Jets are and thus what model they should follow. I contend that the team is a few depth players and a goalie away from being in the playoffs, and that management has avoided or thrown away more solutions than they've ever had problems. The 2009 Oilers needed bigger pieces than the Jets do, but were much closer to respectable than hindsight would have us believe. In fact, they may have been Glencross, Brodziak, a goalie, and a coach away for competing for 8th in the West like the old days.
So What Do We Do?
For all the problems of the 2009 Oilers, it started in the front office. Khabibulin was not a good signing, but he was a keystone move by the GM and so labeled by the franchise as the MVP (Tambo literally said that). Backing him up by rookies of questionable quality and allowing him to stay for all four of his purchased seasons led the Oilers to spend years 'evaluating' Devan Dubnyk only to decide against him this season. Will the Jets hand over the reigns to Eric Comrie and Connor Hellebyuck in 4 years time only to begin then to find out if they can be starting goaltenders in the NHL? It's hardly the Rask/Thomas, Schneider/Luongo model.
Pat Quinn was also a terrible hire, and while we can acknowledge he's a legend, he must have interviewed for the job. Did Tambellini really think his structural ideas were sound? Or was it all buzz words in that meeting?
Despite Pat Quinn being embarassed behind the bench and having a tenure as limited as his ceiling, the GM moved one of his best players to support that coach. We've seen the same kind of loyalty to a sub-par coach in how Cheveldayoff treated Burmistrov, and Wellwood, and others, and at least this fan fears the day Evander Kane or Dustin Byfuglien is moved for a more simple player.
At forward, the Jets are fortunate to have a handful of very talented skaters - more in number than the 2009 Oilers. But at this point, the finest hockey player in an Oiler generation - Ales Hemsky - turned 30 with two shots at the playoffs and his entire prime wasted by a club that put him with also-rans and rookies. The front of the cluster is Hall now, and yet Ales Hemsky remains one of the few effective players on a team barely removed from the basement.
In that light, the Jets have a handful of Hemsky's. Ladd and Wheeler in particular are top line forwards in the NHL who are exiting their primes in the near future. Will the team simply waste them while talking evaluation and patience? Who has to ask Cheveldayoff to the dance before he says yes to the opportunities - from Grabovski and Jokinen through waivers to Santorelli and Burmistrov let walk to Tim Gleason and Mason Raymond available for pennies on the dollar?
There was a time when the Oilers had to choose - would Hall and Eberle and Paajarvi be value contracts on a competitve club (as Boston did with Seguin and LA did with Doughty and so forth), or would they wait 5+ years for those players to develop into the club's leaders?
The Jets face a similar challenge. Scheifele and Trouba look promising, though need help and will for years to come. Petan, Lowry, Morrissey, Kichton, and more offer hope for a future, but we know how rare it is that a draft group delivers two or more high quality NHL players, and certainly the timeline is long. A Jets team led by Scheifele and Trouba is 5 years of letting LLW, Enstrom, and Buf play out their primes followed by trying to find those same players a second time. The Oilers are still looking for another Horcoff, another Ryan Smyth, and another Fernando Pisani to get back into the show. They're still searching for Curtis Glencross and replaced Kyle Brodziak just this year (Boyd Gordon). They fixed the O'Sullivans and the Brules, and now they need high quality, two-way players with guts and experience and skill.
Are the Jets going to try to fix Olli Jokinen and Chris Thorburn by waiting 5 years for Scheifele and Lowry?
In contrast, it's possible - not automatic, but possible - that a better coach, a new goalie, and a handful of better depth players turns this team around to take advantage of the cheap contracts of Scheifele, Trouba, and other prospects. In many ways, it's an easier, more cost effective solution. As well, it holds less risk of following the comparable of the 2009/2010 Oilers. That alone should be cause enough to go that route.