It’s one of those things that hockey writers do at certain points of a long season. The team they cover has a day off, it has just played its 20th or 40th or 60th game of the season and you, the journalist, really have nothing more to write about until they go back to practice.
So you decide to grade the team. Forget that you’ve never played the game. Forget that you haven’t even coached kids hockey. Forget all that. You have a free day so why not play school-marm and grade your little class.
It’s time honored, it’s usually wrong, it’s ridiculously subjective and you know that people love to read it.
All that happened this week when one of the local fish-wraps decided that the Winnipeg Jets’ 8-9-3 start was worthy of a C. Not often does a team below .500 garner a C. Then again, not often does a team that has won three in a row over three of the best teams in the NHL garner a C.
And therein lies the problem.
"It’s pretty difficult to grade a player or a team after 20 games because in three or four-game increments they might have been very good or very bad," said the ol’ coach, Scotty Bowman. "I never paid much attention to any of that stuff anyway, but I must say we often graded young players or call-ups from the minors, guys we didn’t know real well. But we usually graded them on single game or two- or three-game increments. Over an 82-game schedule, all players — even the greats — will have some ups and downs. Only the greatest will play consistently well for 82 games. Hey, even 40 games."
While I’m sure it’s fun, it’s impossible to grade the Winnipeg Jets over the first 20 games of the season. After all, this team started off 0-3 (F), beat Pittsburgh, lost to Toronto and Ottawa, beat Carolina and lost at home to the Rangers (C-), then it went on the road and went 3-2-2 (A), but at the end of the trip they went 0-1-2 and then lost two straight to Florida and Columbus to go winless in five (E-), then they snapped out of it and beat Tampa 5-2, Washington 4-1 and Philadelphia 6-4 (A+ – they’d have been A++ had they won any of those game on the road). That’s not a C team. Of course, it’s not an A or an F team either. It’s a team that has played in spurts this season.
It is, without fear of argument, the most inconsistent team in the NHL. So, if you’re grading on consistency, it’s an F. If you’re grading on heart, it’s a B. If you’re grading on beauty then you didn’t see the 9-8 win over Philly and the 6-4 win over Philly, but you DID see two wins. So how do you grade that?
In fairness, this team has also been forced to face problems with disgruntled personnel, serious injuries and the usual bumps and bruises that keep players out of the lineup for a game or two at a time. The Jets have played well with three American Hockey League defensemen in the lineup and poorly with a lineup they thought could get them to the playoffs. Who knew? Coach Claude Noel has had good days with his employees and bad days. In a nutshell, the Jets are ungradable.
And that might not change this season. This just might be a team that stumbles into the playoffs playing well one week and poorly the next. It might also go into the prolonged two-month slump that killed its great start last season. Or, for all we know, it just might have found itself this past week.
"I hope this is who we are," said Noel after the victory over Philly last Saturday.
Notice he was only hoping. Right now, Noel has no idea what he’s going to get on this three-game road trip that will take his team to Washington tomorrow (Wednesday), Raleigh on Friday and Boston on Saturday.
He could come home with a handful of gold stars, ready to give his charges straight A’s. Or he could come home 8-12-3 and mark F’s across the board.
No doubt, we’ll know more about this team on Saturday night. Or not.