Going Back to Winnipeg: Part One

The Jets Revisited

Part One of a two-part article looking at the Winnipeg Jets in the Revisited Series

*If you’re an Oilers fan, you’re going to want to watch that first video clip*

Winnipeg got its team back and the city, and country, rejoiced. Now what?

The Jets were close to making the playoffs this last season, but do they appear to be getting better? Is just being in the NHL enough to satisfy their fans? How deep is the talent pool for the franchise? Have the systemic issues that eventually sunk that organization in Atlanta been addressed?

The Jets have only been in action for one season so we can’t draw too many conclusions from so short a timeframe. However, we can look at the relative strengths and weaknesses of the franchise to try and ascertain what directions might be most lucrative or likely.

Migration North

The deal that brought the Jets back to Winnipeg was coordinated by Mark Chipman, chair of True North Sports & Entertainment (TNSE), and financed by David Thomson. It all hinged around the MTS center, the new arena for which TNSE was founded to build, and which eventually lured the NHL back. While small (it only seats 15,000), the MTS center at 80% is still making more money than anything the Thrashers could accomplish in the Atlanta market.

In 2007 TSNE approached the NHL about bringing the NHL back to Winnipeg. Prior to that they committed to the building of the MTS center and executing to a high-standard the running of the Manitoba Moose, all the while maintaining their quiet but determined presence amongst the NHL Board of Governors. This persistence paid off as they were eventually awarded an NHL franchise.

On that point, however, I think there is something about the Thrashers’ relocation that is worth mentioning. Winnipeg is a better hockey market than Atlanta, that is without question. However, one wonders how much of that is circumstantial. For instance, if we were to exchange the franchise histories of the Atlanta Thrashers with that of the Carolina Hurricanes, could it have been the Hurricanes that moved instead of the Thrashers? Of course historical revision isn’t that simple. Jim Rutherford is a fairly stable owner, whereas the Atlanta Spirit was a collection of owners who were often divided and at odds. But the possibility cannot easily be dismissed and needs to be noted when evaluating the fate of that franchise and the repercussions its failure holds for Winnipeg.

TNSE also came “within ten minutes” of buying the Phoenix Coyotes but for a Glendale City Council emergency vote, according to Chipman.

So the question could also be asked, what would be better for the fans of Winnipeg: the relocation of the Thrashers franchise or to reclaim the Coyotes? Based on performance, talent levels, and successes the Coyotes would appear to be the more healthy organization, although the Thrashers/Jets are considered to have the better prospect pool.

I would argue that it is a healthier thing for the city to start anew, so to speak, with the old Thrashers organization than to bring back the Coyotes and all of the emotional associations that would come with that.

The point here is that TSNE got the Thrashers by a combination of subtle determination and sheer happenstance. They could have gotten the Coyotes, the Hurricanes, or even the Predators a few years earlier, had circumstances unfolded differently. They likely received the absolute weakest of any of the NHL franchises available.

Top Gun

The Jets, by all external evaluations, have a poor prospect system, something they have inherited from their Thrashers roots. To some extent this is a product of drafting players who could impact the NHL immediately, or were at least were expected to, in Alex Burmistrov, Evander Kane, and Zach Bogosian. There is young talent in the system, it just happens to be playing on their NHL roster rather than developing in the junior or farm leagues. Arguably, Burmistrov and Bogosian could have been afforded an extra season to continue developing prior to breaking through to the NHL. That was a common mistake of the previous management group under Don Waddell and Rick Dudley.

Following the sale and relocation of the Thrashers, the Atlanta website was taken down. As such some information has been difficult to uncover, however, to the best of my knowledge there has been little turnover in the scouting and development department during the transition to Winnipeg.

Dan Marr, head of scouting and player development from the Thrashers days was let go by the Jets following the 2011 Draft. He was quickly picked up by NHL Central Scouting to replace the recently departed E. J. Maguire.

Director of Amateur Scouting Marcel Comeau, an Edmonton-born former NHL-er and ex-Oil King, was retained. He has been with the franchise since 1999, becoming head scout in 2003. The breakdown of the rest of the group is Mark Hillier as Head Scout, reporting to Comeau. Travis MacMillan and Keith Sullivan are the U.S. scouts, Chris Snell covers the OHL, Scott Scoville is the man in the WHL, as well as Ed Friesen, Yanick Lemay and Patrick Carmicheal. The European scouts include Evgeny Bogdanovich (head of European Scouting) and Fredrik Jax.

The Jets have retained Comeau, Carmichael, Bogdanovich, and pro scouts Mark Dobson and John Perpich from the Thrashers, all of whom have been with the franchise since it’s birth in 1999-2000.

Forgive me for saying so, but I’m not entirely certain that retaining these scouts is a wise choice. If you’ll pardon the digression, here is where we ought to stop and take a more in-depth look at the Jets’ predecessors, the Atlanta Thrashers.

Looking over the Thrashers draft history between their inaugural season in 1999 to 2006 (my arbitrary cutoff point for evaluating drafted prospects at this time), I counted every player selected who had managed 100+ games in the NHL. In that eight-year window there were fourteen players who achieved that milestone. When the bar was raised to 200+ games there were still eleven on the list. In that time the Thrashers made 78 selections, at 100+ games that gives them a success rate of 17.9%, when raised to 200+ games it drops to 14.1%. Those aren’t terrible numbers, but when one factors in that Darcy Hordichuk, Patrik Stefan, and Pasi Nurminen are among those names it waters down the results considerably.

The lowest point for the scouting department were the 2004 and 2005 draft years, where the team was only able to identify and acquire a single 100+ game NHL player, Ondrej Pavelec, over both years combined. The remaining seventeen selections, including a 10th overall pick in 2004, failed to contribute anything of value to the team. As we have seen in examining the draft records of other teams around the league, a draft year in which a team fails to find at least two NHL players usually foretells a collapse in their fortunes five to six years later. Unfortunately this is entirely retrospective and does nothing to help a team avoid it.

The Thrashers had a less-than-stellar draft history despite consistently high draft positions. On average the Thrashers’ scouts found about one NHL player per draft. This despite several years saturated with picks in a deliberate effort to build through the draft. While the organization did reap some short-term benefits from four consecutive 1st or 2nd overall draft picks, they were never able to regularly capitalize on depth drafting, which meant that each season saw the addition of a single impact NHL player to the roster, with little or no depth in the system and a limited budget by which to retain or attract talented players.

Most damning is that of the players selected by the Thrashers during this time (including four consecutive 1st or 2nd overall selections), very few are still with, or provided ample advantage to, the franchise. Today, only four of those 14 players selected remain with the club – Pavelec, Tobias Enstrom, Bryan Little and Jim Slater. The fault for this lies squarely on management under Don Waddell and to a lesser extent Rick Dudley.

The Jets ownership jettisoned much of the management group almost immediately after taking over. They identified quickly that the GM position was a weakness and needed to be addressed. That the newly-hired Jets management have chosen to keep on with this same group of scouts seems ill-advised, in my opinion. Were it a temporary move in order to facilitate their first draft on short notice, it would understandable. However, they appear to be content to proceed with the same group intact into the 2013 draft year.

I must moderate some of my criticism over the Thrashers’ drafting history on account of the fact that many prospects are selected based on a concensus opinion of their skills and relative value, but that they may fail to meet those expectations for a variety of reasons. Case in point – Doug Lynch was a highly-regarded defensive prospect in the Oilers’ development system and one of three players that the franchise was said to covet that draft year (along with Ales Hemsky and Jeff Woywitka). Lynch suffered a wrist injury with the Oilers followed by a knee injury with the Blues, both of which essentially derailed what were decent career prospects. Lowetide has a good article on it here, and how injuries can cut short a prospect’s career giving the appearance of a poor draft decision when in fact it was the fist of fate. To some extent the Thrashers may have been making the right pick, based on general consensus, with each of their selections and with failure to reap rewards the result of the fickle middle-finger of fate.

This is why I generally prefer to discuss the track records of scouting groups who have had a longer term as it provides a more accurate sample size over which to form an opinion of their abilities adjusted for luck.

For example, I won’t browbeat the Thrashers’ scouts for the Patrik Stefan pick, their first ever in 1999 and a 1st overall, as it was generally believed that he could be an elite center in the NHL, based on his development prior to the draft. The following four players were either a package deal (the Sedins) or of questionable value. The 1999 draft was also something of a low-point in NHL amateur talent. They made the pick that likely most other NHL GMs would have.

My criticism comes from the fact that this group has been given a long run to prove itself and has generally returned middling results. For an organization like TNSE to be so thorough in almost every aspect of establishing an NHL-ready management chain, an oversight in this department is surprising.

Today the highest-ranked prospects of the Jets system are Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba and Ivan Telegin. Paul Postma is next on the list and may develop into something between a good second-pairing defender and a power-play specialist. Those are decent prospects, but for a team with the current roster of the Jets and the history of the Thrashers, it is simply not good enough.

The remainder of the Jets prospect group are players who appear most likely to max out as depth forwards or bottom pairing defencemen.

Time will tell if they made a serious error in not selecting Sean Couturier in 2011 when he was still available at 7th overall.

Jets Management

The Jets hired Kevin Cheveldayoff as GM in 2011, four days after buying out Rick Dudley. Cheveldayoff had been an assistant GM with the Blackhawks since 2009, winning a Stanley Cup in his first season with the organization.

Cheveldayoff has had a winning record in nearly every franchise he has been associated with in management. He was GM of the Chicago Wolves from 1997 to 2009, during which time the franchise won two Turner Cups (’97-’98 and ’99-’00) in the old IHL, followed by two Calder Cups (’01-’02 and ’07-’08) once the team moved over to the AHL, and twice more finishing as conference champions. The team made the playoffs in every season he was there, save two (’05-’06 and ’08-’09), and played in the championship finals six times.

The Wolves were the AHL affiliate of the Thrashers from 2001 to 2011. Prior to that they were affiliated with the Islanders.

I think it is safe to say that Cheveldayoff accomplished what he did with the Wolves in spite of his NHL parent team rather than as a result of them.

He has done most everything that an NHL GM ought to have accomplished prior to taking his first job. His resume is strong and it would appear that he has experience building teams from limited resources.

My impression of Cheveldayoff is that he is patient, makes the most of the resources available to him, and has a history of successfully navigating teams to a high level of competition.


Claude Noel spent 24 forgettable games (10-8-6) in Columbus cleaning up the year after Ken Hitchcock was fired in 2009-2010. After Scott Arniel was hired to replace Noel to start the 2010-2011 season, Noel was hired to replace Arniel in Winnipeg as coach of the Manitoba Moose.

Noel was hired to be the head coach of the Jets almost exactly one year later.

Prior to joining the NHL, he had won a Calder Cup in 2003 coaching the Milwaukee Admirals (affiliate of the Nashville Predators) of the AHL, his first season as head coach in the AHL. That roster included players such as Martin Erat, Dan Hamhuis, Raitis Ivanans, Chris Mason, and Scottie Upshall as the future NHLers of the squad.

That Noel was able to keep the Jets, in their first year following relocation, in the playoff hunt is commendable. He also managed to get the team to its highest points-total in five years.

He made the most of limited resources, as good coaches often do. The Jets have added some offensive potential to their lineup by way of Olli Jokinen and Alexei Ponikarovsky for the next season (whether that be this year or next), so it will be a good test of Noel’s abilities to see if he can tailor ice times and roles to their respective strengths. You can read what a Jets blogger thinks of Claude Noel’s first season here.

Noel is well-served by his assistant coaching staff, notably Charlie Huddy and Perry Pearn, but including Pascal Vincent and Wade Flaherty. This is a coaching staff ideally suited to extracting maximum returns on minimal investments. I wouldn’t say that he is one of the best coaches in the league, but considering what he’s been given, I think he is probably the best coach for the team right now.

In the next article I will take a closer look at the current state of the roster, predictions for the season, a brief opinion on Evander Kane, and my basic summation of the state and future of the franchise. 

  • 24% body fat

    Schieflie was the first mistake the Jets made. Lets draft him because hawerchuk said he was good. Sounds like the same form of stupidity the oilers have with all their old boys club.

    • John Chambers

      Or they could’ve drafted Dougie Hamilton instead of Scheifele to anchor their D for a decade, and selected Mikael Grigorenko to pivot their top line.

      • RexLibris

        The mistakes are beginning to add up, and depending on how the draft breaks down this year, a third season where outside voices question their picks might be enough to indicate that change is needed.

        I don’t have anything concrete to base this opinion on, but I have gathered from some offhand comments and asides that the media that covers the Jets is more smitten with the product than is expected in other markets. I am beginning to wonder if the franchise is being let off the proverbial hook for the first few years out of deference for the ownership group that negotiated their return.

        Failure at this stage, unfortunately, will only delay the inevitable, and they would be best, in my opinion, to capitalize on their available capital with the fans and be bad while they have the option in order to build for the future.

        Heaven knows they won’t be able to do it many other ways.

        • John Chambers

          I had a conversation with a senior exec from True North who said outright that they inherited a number of contracts that they weren’t fond of. I thought to myself who that might be: Ron Hainsey? Oduya? Byfuglien?

          But then they turn around and overpay Pavalec because they didn’t acquire a strong #2.

          They did do a great job of getting Enstrom and Kane to contracts of reasonable dollars and term, and got good deals & term on Jokinen and Ponikarovsky.

          I guess like any franchise they’ll have their wins and make their errors.

          • RexLibris

            True. We have Horcoff and Khabibulin so glass houses and stones and all that.

            Ponikarovsky I can’t say much on, not having seen him play a great deal. On Jokinen I will reserve judgement only insofar as they have very poor depth down the middle and if Claude Noel tries to use Jokinen as a 1st line center or a shutdown man then he will learn the same lesson that Mike Keenan and Brent Sutter did, all of them the hard way.

            He looks like he’d be a good shutdown guy who could create offense on the turnover. The fact is that when put in that role, as I recall, the offense he creates is usually in the favour of the opponent.

  • 24% body fat

    Winnipeg is the model of the NHL in the 21st century. Bigger isn’t always better. The NHL needs its roots in Canada. People talk about QC and Markham as NHL cities. Add Saskatoon and Halifax to my wish list. A league that is coast to coast in Canada would go a long way to ensuring the stability of the NHL. The NHL needs a strong Canadian base to offset declining revenues in the U.S.. There is a definite need and desire by NHL fans in this country for more teams. Winnipeg has shown the way and its leadership will reverberate for years to come.

    • RexLibris

      As I recall, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg each had teams good enough to win Stanley. It was their bad luck to be in Edmonton’s division.

      There was one year when Calgary cheap-shotted Hawrechuk to the injured list and I was relieved. I think Winnipeg very well could have taken Edmonton that year had he been healthy.

      • Captain Ron

        It was Jamie Macoun that hit Hawerchuk with a crosscheck to the ribs. We were livid when it happened. He tried to come back and play with a flak jacket or something like that on but that didn’t work out too well.

        They for sure had a team that was good enough to win it all, or at least go deep in the playoffs if it wasn’t for sharing a division with the Oilers and Flames.

    • Captain Ron

      No argument here. Having Semenko around helped a lot too.

      I used to cringe when Gretzky and Kurri would come down the ice on a two on one. I think he had 100 points on those alone.

  • RexLibris

    This may seem like a bit of shameless promotion, but if you haven’t watched it, go click on the first youtube link. It is from a documentary called Death By Popcorn – the death of the Winnipeg Jets. It is intentionally hyperbole, but essentially the tone of the documentary is that, but for a bag of popcorn thrown on the ice during a crucial playoff game between the Jets and Oilers, the Jets may have won that series and thus gone on to greater things, thereby perchance securing some of their financial future and thus not having to move to Phoenix.

    And it is all the fault of a bag of popcorn and Wayne Gretzky. The sound effects that they put with Gretzky’s ProStars ads are hilarious. Worth a click.

    I was stunned when the Jets took Scheifele. When Couturier started sliding and got to 7th I was convinced they’d take him, considering it as a gift from the hockey gods. That is partially why I am surprised that Cheveldayoff has retained the scouting staff. I may not fire them the day after the draft, like some organizations, but I’d take a long hard look at who I’ve got calling the shots.

  • RexLibris

    Anyone who uses the word system four times or more in one piece is on my first line.

    I was lucky enough to get to watch my brother in-law squirm for YEARS as the Oilers dismantled the Jets,but I didnt really learn much about the team,this article was excellent,in depth and informative,thank you.

    If you have time would you please consider creating a past to present State of Affairs charting our very own Oilers exactly as you have done for the Jets??That was so well done and covered so many aspects of the team both tangible and intangible that it makes me wonder how our hometeam would look if we reviewed it so thoroughly.

  • John Chambers

    Nice write-up, Rex.

    TNSE actually approached the NHL back in 2003 or 2004 and asked how many seats were required for an NHL team. When the league told them 15,000 seats was the minimum, they built the stadium along those parameters.

    TNSE knew they were going to get a team as early as 2008. In the interim they received constant advice from the NHL regarding in-game production standars, marketing, media engagement, and all the finer points of running a major-league organization. True North were able to professionalize their operation, likely better than a number of actual NHL teams, years prior to returning to the majors.

    That True North turns a good profit is as a result of the fact that they run an intelligent sales, marketing, productions, media, and technology operation. If other NHL teams are failing to grow revenues and capture attention in their home markets, they should look to perfect the off-ice side of the business to underline the success of the team on-ice.

    • RexLibris

      They also had a market with virtually zero growth prior to their arrival. The first few stages of marketing and sales have been the low-hanging fruit. Expansion in virgin territory is always boom, but I’ll be interested to see how they handle their markets five years from now, especially if the team falters.

      I agree though, that they are a higher-functioning group than many others around the league.

      • John Chambers

        One of the new ways of driving revenue (and non-HRR!) for NHL teams is selling official sponsorships to local companies for co-branding purposes. Pro sports franchises are now signing up partnerships, at a fee, with car dealerships, local restaurant chains, newspapers and radio stations, etc where they’ll commit a few days of their athletes’ time along with exclusivity rights for various categories of business, (eg, Home Depot and Coca Cola, but not for Rona & Pepsi).

        Teams are also investing in technology where small companies who can’t afford rink-board advertising get to promote their brand within the stadium on digital media screens around the building concourse & in luxury suites. You can sign up 40-50 local companies for $20K-$50K per season, depending on the value of the inventory they’re buying. To boot, teams are developing Smartphone app’s with co-branding opp’s. For example, “Fans get out your TELUS Smartphone to play 1st period Boston Pizza trivia”.

        The whole arrangement is orders of magnitude more sophisticated than it was even 3 or 4 years ago, and can drive upwards of $5 – $10M in additional revenue, depending on the size and intensity of the market.

        All I’m saying is that the Jets recognize the value of their brand locally, and haven’t been lazy at maximizing revenue from it. The other point behind having only a 15,000-seat stadium is the scacity of tickets. I went to one freaking game last year! They’re more valuable than cigarettes in prison.

        • RexLibris

          I would never accuse them of being lazy, just that explosive revenue numbers are almost certain to settle down to a more predictable pattern, and perhaps one that is indicative of the limited corporate market that Winnipeg can provide relative to some other markets.

          Be that as it may, I’d rather have a sales job in TNSE than try to sell ad space for an NHL team in Dallas or Carolina.

  • Captain Ron

    Watching that first youtube video sure brings back the memories. I laughed like hell at the site of Chicken Delight guy in the Chicken outfit who used to run around in the stands every game. My buddies and I, some of whom were of the loud and obnoxious variety would scream “roast that chicken” as loud as we could over and over again until most of the crowd would join us chanting. We did it every game we went to. Chicken man would come over to us once in a while for some staged play fight action and the place went crazy laughing over it. What a riot we were having in that old barn. Crap like that went on for years and nobody got hurt. John Ferguson mentioned our group once in a laughing manner during an interview. And then there was dancing Gabe and his drum also seen in the youtube clip. In the opening of the video it shows the front of the arena and just out of the camera view to the right there was a side door. We used to get an old school chum who was an usher there at the time to let us in that door when we couldn’t get tickets at 7 Eleven or otherwise didn’t have any cash. I know we got in free on many occasions. Compared to that place the Dome is an absolute library.

  • As a Jet fan and stat blogger (I write at AIH) I’ll try to add my opinions and some others to add on to this.

    1) Scheifele. It was a reach no matter what you think, but not everyone thinks it was a bad decision. I’m a BPA Couturier>Scheifele guy myself, but there were many legitimate scouts who feared that Couturier’s development was slowing down; meanwhile, Scheifele’s development was exploding. So basically they assumed (possibly wrongfully) that Scheifele has a higher offensive ceiling… and there are many non-Jet fans who agree (I’m skeptical personally).
    I know for a fact that Hawerchuk wasn’t the reason they drafted Scheifele. Chevy mentioned on draft day to TSN that the scouts were high on Scheifele’s character and strong development. Doesn’t mean it was the right choice though.

    2) Trouba. I actually like Trouba; it wasn’t a reach either, just that Forsberg and Grigs could of been nice value. They obviously saw BPA in Trouba and may be wrong… the only player I was actually angry at that draft was Sutter in 2nd round. He was a 3rd in my mind.

    3) TNSE for the most part has probably maximized their revenue rate for the most part, other than raising tix. There are other minor avenues though that can add up, as mentioned above by John Chambers above.

    4)I know Noel’s system quite well and he will most likely split the tough mins between Little’s line and the 3rd. Jokinen will be sheltered with Kane and either Wellwood, Antro or Burmistrov. Lines will probably look like: