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.
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.
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.
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.