March 26 2014 11:50AM
Yesterday we had a terrific article by Dave Wheeler from Wheeler In the Morning about the Jets making strides over the past three seasons. No doubt, a 10th place finish in the West is better than a 10th place finish in the Southeast, and the Jets logged more travel miles this season than in their first thanks to the geographic spread of Western cities. The circumstances are harder, so running in place is actually a sign of improvement.
Still, it's slow improvement and has a low ceiling so far. The GM claims to be building from within and building toward a long-term, renewable success - something we can all get behind in principle.
However, I’m on record as being more cynical about this plan. Do we really have to wait 5 more years for the Jets to make the playoffs? When does this GM intend to compete for the serious hardware? Are the Jets really growing players who will be better than what they have right now?
The Atlanta expansion franchise fizzed and popped and never got on track. The Architect of Shame Don Waddell escaped the "World's Worst" levels of criticism heaped on men like Doug MacLean, Mike Milbury, and Steve Tambellini, perhaps owing to the star power he found along the way or the general irrelevance of hockey in Georgia to those outside the American South-East.
In either case, after the team sobered up from taking Patrick Stefan 1st overall in their inaugural draft, Marcel Comeau was appointed Director of Scouting in 2003 and remains at the post to this day. Sadly for us, in Arrested Development terms, he’s a hot mess at his job. Between 2003 and 2010 (8 drafts), he graduated two players to the NHL of his 54 selections after 12th overall. You know, the back 200+ picks of the draft. Those players are Enstrom and Pavelec, so I’m inclined to call it one.
The team made the playoffs once in all their Atlanta years on the sweat of Hossa, Kovalchuk, Kozlov, Tkachuk (added at the deadline) and Kari Lehtonen, and were swept in the first round despite having home ice advantage from their Division title that season.
What’s the point?
The Atlanta franchise was re-building for a decade with absolutely no sign of turning a corner before Rick Dudley re-shaped the team in two trades, making them the playoff bubble team they are today. Ladd, Wheeler, and Byfuglien were added to a team with Bryan Little growing into a high-end two-way centre, Evander Kane emerging, and Zach Bogosian waiting to break out. Tobi Enstrom was the remaining star of a franchise that had seen Marc Savard, Dany Heatley, Marian Hossa, and Ilya Kovalchuk arrive and depart without a sniff at meaningful contention.
The point is, it's not the first time this team has had high-end talent.
No doubt, the future is bright for the Jets.
Despite my early nausea at Trouba’s play resembling the excitement of a puppy, he has carried the team’s worst defender and contributed a great deal to an off-balance defence group. Scheifele found some rhythm in December after a tough start that inspired the #ScheifeleDown hashtag and invited many to suggest he should get some AHL seasoning.
There are others, too. Nic Petan made the WHL’s first all-start team. Connor Hellebyuck broke the shutout record for his team this year and is only a sophomore. Offensive defender Brenden Kichton is 4th in IceCaps scoring with 45 points in just 65 games. Scott Kosmachuk, James Lodge, Eric Comrie, Andrew Copp and others have had stand-out seasons.
But what does that depth chart look like? In a perfect world where no one loses their way and no one is injured or hits a ceiling in their development, it might be something like:
- Kane - Scheifele -
- Lodge - Petan - Copp
- Lowry -
Burmistrov - Lipon
- Telegin - Olsen -
40 year old Chris Thorburn, obviously
- Samuels-Thomas / Blomqvist
- Morrissey - Trouba
- Kichton - Bogosian
- 40 year old Mark
Stuart, obviously – Kostalek
It's silly to imagine all those players making the NHL, never mind all being difference makers. But even if they did and were everything we could imagine, is that team better than the one the Jets have now? Missing three tough-minutes forwards in Ladd, Little, and Frolik, the offence of Blake Wheeler and Dustin Byfuglien, and perhaps the smartest player to wear Polar Night Blues in Tobias Enstrom - are the Jets better off?
The truth about the Winnipeg Jets is that they have a handful of extremely rare, high-end players in their primes. For all the turnover talk this season regarding Dustin Byfuglien, no teams not named Ottawa or Pittsburgh can claim to have a defenceman who creates as much offence (and neither of their guys are built like a tractor). Ladd, Little, and Frolik (and LLW before it) are a power-vs-power line that keeps up with the stars of some of the league's best teams. Evander Kane is in the top 5% of NHL goal scorers at a young age with little help. And everyone who plays with Tobi Enstrom gets better.
For three straight years, the problems have been outside that top group. Sure, it would be great if Crosby came in and made Little the second line centre. More realistically, the team needed to acquire a scoring centre that wasn't playing little known Finnish games like ‘Fumble Puck’ and 'Stay Away, Get Away’ while his team mates were playing hockey. We know how inexpensive those can be, with Grabovski and Jussi Jokinen passing through waivers, and Kyle Wellwood retiring for lack of league interest. With Scheifele stepping up, the need becomes more of a checking or two-way centre. We had one move to Russia recently over the coach that got fired and the Fumble Puck world champion himself.
The team has shown that when they shorten the bench, they become very competitive against the league’s best. Claude Noel did it early in the season to stem the bleeding. So there is an obvious course of action. Step one, stop playing the stick-optional players. Step two, change our expectations for that end of the lineup from ‘doesn’t bring us shame’ to ‘gets the puck in the right end of the rink.’ Step three, find more effective hockey players who can live up to that expectation.
The same problem exists on the blue line, where team has Enstrom, Bogosian, Trouba, and (I would argue, your mileage may vary) Byfuglien as defenders who can get the puck moving the right way. But Bogo, Trouba, and Buf all need to play with Enstrom to be at their best. Pardy and Ellerby have been remarkable, but mostly in light of the extremely low expectations of players cast away from Dallas and Florida. Mark Stuart is a very real problem on the ice, no matter how good he is in the locker room. For all the belly aching last year, the team actually misses Ron Hainsey.
Of course, all of it might be forgiven if the team had a league average netminder between the pipes. Again, the Jets don't need Carey Price in order to make the playoffs - three years running they just needed a Braydon Holtby! Peter Budaj and Justin Peters could have done the job. James Reimer, for all the vitriol spewed, has substantially better numbers than Pavelec behind an even worse defence structure this year. And his career numbers? It's depressing how much better they are than the crease sweeper currently employed by this club.
The frustrating part of being a Jets fan at this time of year is knowing how much better they could be for almost no effort on the part of the GM.
Play Montoya and Hutchinson and literally Save money while making more saves. Those kinds of goalies are not hockey messiahs - they come in six-packs available in August and September every year.
Try out Carl Klingberg (who leads our AHL forwards in +/- has size and speed) and Andrew Gordon (a Washington Capital grinder turned leading IceCaps scorer) in those bottom four forward spots the team has struggled to fill. Telegin and Burmistrov could very obviously make a positive impact on this team, perhaps even forming most of a third line as early as next season.
As a Jets fan and “analyst” (I’m not more comfortable writing it than you are reading it), it often feels like getting better is largely a matter of addition by subtraction. There are existing answers in-house now, without waiting years to find out what Nic Petan and Andrew Copp can do.
The best teams – like Pittsburgh and Detroit and Chicago – can draft and develop talent while being competitive at the top levels. That’s sustainable success. The problem teams like Atlanta had or have stems from the belief that a team has to draft 23 NHL quality players and wait a generation for them to become a team.
The Jets have a ton of high-1st round picks already in the lineup and who are now in their primes. It’s time to patch up the holes and compete now – and that doesn’t mean compromising the future.