Jets Start Season in a Hole: When Is the Window to Compete?

Entering November, the Jets sit in 25th place with an underwhelming 9 points in 10 games and a 26th ranked goal differential. Of four wins, three have come against teams in the bottom-third of the standings and a playoff appearance is as far away as any October on record.

The question of when the Jets intend to compete seems to linger under this General Manager. We talked about the team’s intended window of opportunity at the trade deadline of 2012/13 when the team had a host of pending UFAs to sell and a few holes the GM talked about filling but never did. The mixed signals continued unabated. I suggested two years ago that the team might be lining up to compete for Connor McDavid, but that seemed like a silly notion in September 2014 after the team took some small steps forward each of the last two off-seasons and iced their best top-6 since moving north to start this campaign.

Sadly, with an injury to Kane exposing a lack of depth and the expected failures of Pavelec all but ending the Jets’ playoff hopes before November, the question rises again: does GM Kevin Cheveldayoff have a plan for the Jets to be a playoff team? And if so, when?

Did we miss the playoffs already?!

Saturday, October 22, 2011, the newly arrived Winnipeg Jets 2.0 defeated the lowly Carolina Hurricanes to collect just their second win (5 points) through 7 games. The Jets would eventually finish just two points ahead of the ‘Canes for 22nd in the league despite playing out of the then easy, now defunct Southeast Division. 

Not since that first season have the the Winnipeg Jets strung together such a start to a season. Perhaps because of the good will surrounding that inaugural year, coach Claude Noel didn’t hold an expletive-laced press conference when the team came out of the gate slowly back in 2011. With just nine points of a possible twenty, a 27th best 2.00 goals for per game, and an 18th best team save rate of 90.5%, the promise of a full-season under new coaching – greater tempo, more offence, better control of shots and rebounds in the defensive end, and more structure in transition – is starting to wear thin already.

It’s been just 10 games – 12% of the season – but we know historically that teams who are four or more points back from a playoff spot on November 1st rarely make the second season (see link above). In other words, the 20 or so playoff contenders are mostly set by November, and the Jets are currently just inside that group. It’s not mathematically impossible by any means, it’s just historically unlikely.

So what’s a GM to do?

Sell, Sell, Sell!!

The Jets have long been criticized for lacking star power. The purpose of the draft-based rebuild is that young, affordable, offensive talent doesn’t come from any other route. It’s not rocket poetry.

Standing outside a playoff position in April 2013 with pending UFAs Ron Hainsey, Nik Antropov, Antti Miettinen, and Kyle Wellwood, struggling vet on a rental contract Olli Jokinen and more, the Jets held onto their roster pieces. We know that they would both miss the playoffs and let all of those players walk away the moment their contracts ended. 

At the 2013/14 deadline, the Jets must have been aware that they didn’t intend to renew Devin Setoguchi or Olli Jokinen, never mind some of the supporting cast that didn’t return (but also may not have garnered a return in trade). Again, the team stood pat, missed the playoffs, lost the assets. 

Scheifele, Trouba, Morrissey, and Ehlers appear at this stage to be fine 1st round picks, so it’s hard to wish the team had tanked further, given us a few more miserable winter nights to get higher on the draft board. Nevertheless, the added draft bullets from effective asset management might mean a slightly deeper prospect pool, both adding potential NHL players to the mix and giving the team more tradeable assets to improve the NHL club. 

Will Cheveldayoff sell this year? The team has fewer desirable UFAs – just Michael Frolik and also-rans Jim Slater, Matt Halischuk, TJ Galiardi, and Adam Pardy. The draft-based rebuild hasn’t been maximized to date, and with lengthy and high value contracts to the existing stars of the team, as well as a lack of extra pieces left to rent out, it seems selling for more draft picks is an idea that has passed.

Fix the Holes

Just before the 2012/13 deadline, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff spoke clearly about what needed to be added – a 2nd line RW, a centre and a two-way LW for the bottom six, and an experienced depth defender. All of these were rentable assets (as they are every year), but he was focused on bringing in players who might stick around. His solution was Mike Santorelli off waivers, who was let go after the season. 

The team lost Burmistrov after the season as well, but Setoguchi was brought in for the 2RW position, along with Frolik for the two-way wing spot, and Scheifele was graduated to the NHL to fill the centre role. Since, Perreault replaced Jokinen, Byfuglien moved to forward, and Lowry graduated this season. With players coming and going, the holes have mostly been shuffled around.

The team still needs forward depth, particularly in the bottom-six. The team still needs a solution for the powerplay, perhaps a specialist. They still need a quality defender. Most of all, the Jets badly need a different goalie. With teams like Buffalo and Carolina on the outside of the playoffs and contemplating their draft position, additions like Michael Neuvirth, Drew Stafford, or Nathan Gerbe might be immediately available to the Jets, but acquiring short-term assets in a lost season is rarely a formula for long-term success. 

Just Wait

There is the possibility that this GM is simply waiting out the Pavelec contract, and envisions a Jets playoff appearance when Petan, Ehlers, Morrissey and Hellebuyck are stars on the NHL club. Beyond the frustration of years of wasted hockey, it’s a plan that comes with one fatal flaw – that is, the team already has a host of stars currently playing out their primes in futility. All of Little, Ladd, Wheeler, Kane, Frolik, Enstrom, Byfuglien, and Bogosian are in their primes today and have put up respectable numbers while playing against the league’s best players every night. Is hoping that Nic Petan can score more than Bryan Little against tough competition, or that Ehlers can add more than the 30 goals Evander Kane can score really a plan?

We often overlook the contributions of the Atlanta group. Our friends at Arctic Ice showed the very rare skill that is Evander Kane’s scoring – he sits 34th in the whole NHL for goals per game over the last three seasons. Blake Wheeler tied Martin St Louis for 19th in league scoring a year ago, one point shy of accepted stars Patrick Marleau and Anze Kopitar. Tobias Enstrom is a two-time 50 point scorer (which would be top-10 in any season) and scored 30 last season while playing against the lines of Kane, Toews, Parise, and the rest of the Central Division stars.

Good teams bring young players in slowly, surrounded by support, in a winning culture. We know from countless examples that having an aging veteran group of highly paid former stars and a crop of un-seasoned young talent doesn’t make for a playoff team. That was, in fact, the Atlanta model. As it is the Florida model, and for several years the Edmonton model (one might note that the team added a host of NHL-calibre players in their prime years to start digging out of that hole). 

Ondrej Pavelec may have individually cost the team 3 seasons of playoffs, and yet the failures have rested on the shoulders of the positive contributors. It’s not clear at this stage that the Jets youth – including Scheifele, Trouba, and Lowry who have recently graduated to the team – will actually be better than the stars currently in place. Just waiting may be an exercise in regret. 

Well, This Was Depressing…

I genuinely cannot figure out the team’s intended window of opportunity and I blame that lack of obvious plan for the Jets stagnant performance through 3.1 seasons. But I’m just one man. Jets Nation – can you see the forest from the trees? Is there a plan in place? What would you do if you took this team over on November 1st?

  • it has to be within 2 years. get what you can for frolik this year. get what you can for ladd and buff next year and hopefully win the kane deal. they’re gonna need to bring in a reliable goalie with the trades of those 3, as well as something for the top six to remain potent. then we’ll see little, scheifele, perreault, lowry or petan down the middle. ehlers will play in the top six and hopefully some other prospect can step up. trouba has to take steps and morrissey has to be as good as hoped. all this really depends on the returns from ladd, buff and kane. it would be great if they all stayed and the prospects rolled in but, i think those guys are done in the frozen desert. maybe ladd will stick. chevy has to win a trade or 2 still but, he should get another easy high pick this year. let’s hope 2 years to relevance.