Even though the title might be a bit click-baity, there may be some truth to that statement. It’s now been a few weeks since the Jets were eliminated by the Blues in what was a disappointing end to a tumultuous season.
While losing in the playoffs is never a good thing, it might be what’s best for the organization when looking at the long term future of the team.
It’s no secret that the year in general didn’t quite go as planned. The Jets were penciled in as a Stanley Cup favourite from the start of the year as they had nearly the same group of returning players who made a deep run one year ago. But what if those expectations were the problem during the season?
There was a monumental shift in mentality for the Winnipeg Jets from 2017-18 to 2018-19. During their rise in 2017-18 they continually preached the idea that they were only trying to make the playoffs. There was no talk of lifting the Stanley Cup at year’s end, the team was laser-focused on one thing, and that was getting into the playoffs. It was evident during interviews as the entire team, from coaching staff to depth players continually re-directed questions about contending for a championship and pushed towards a simpler objective of getting into the playoffs.
The shift in mentality started to occur before the 2018-19 season as expectations started to heat up. Suddenly, all of the hockey ‘experts’ had picked Winnipeg as one of the favourites to hoist the Cup in June. The questions were asked by the media and this time the team didn’t deflect but rather tried to speak about their chances in spring. While some questions were still deflected, during the course of the year it seemed that the common refrain was that “the only games that mattered are the playoffs”. It seemed that the regular season struggles didn’t matter to the team because only the playoffs mattered. This became a dangerous mindset because the complacency started to set in. They knew they were in the playoff picture so the way they played leading up to it didn’t matter. Spoiler alert, they were wrong.
This subtle shift happened at the start of the year so many people didn’t even notice. This wasn’t lost on the players however, as some truths came out during the end of year media availability. Zee pointed out the following a few weeks ago while covering the media availability:
For most of the players, it was clear that while some aspects felt good, overall something had been missing in their performance. Veterans that played through the previous season felt something was a little different compared to last year’s success, perhaps Adam Lowry said it best, “ I don’t know if you can put your finger on it, but I think we always felt like we were just a little off. We weren’t right necessarily where we wanted to be.” Center man Brian Little added “People were talking about the Stanley Cup when we got to training camp this year which was crazy. We expected more out of ourselves this year and next year we’re going to come hungry again.”
There it is. Little alludes to the expectations they had for themselves. While we will never know exactly what he meant, it would seem obvious that he means making a deep playoff run and ending it with a Stanley Cup parade. The expectation shifted from merely making the playoffs to something much greater and the team didn’t quite know how to deal with it.
You might be thinking, why is this important? In my mind, this is important because the Jets seemed uninspired for much of the season and I would argue that complacency played a large factor. It’s easier to be motivated when everyone is doubting you. Look at the Golden Knights’ inaugural season or the historic upset of the Blue Jackets against the Lighting. Having the underdog mentality can provide enormous benefits for an organization.
This leads to the next point. Are the Winnipeg Jets actually underdogs? Two years ago, it seemed that they were. This past year, likely not as everyone expected the Jets to be successful. Trying to market themselves as an underdog would likely be met with skepticism around the hockey world.
What’s the solution then? I believe that teams need to learn how to be successful. Just because a team has talent, great camaraderie, or excellent coaching does not mean they will find success. Learning how to weather the storms throughout the season and knowing that every opponent is giving their all to try and dethrone a Stanley Cup contender takes time. Maurice seems to understand the concept as he mentioned that teams were coming into Winnipeg with a little extra effort compared to previous seasons.
Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers for the team. How can an organization learn to be consistently good? How does a team stay motivated during the regular season even though they are clearly building for playoffs? These will be the questions that Chipman, Cheveldayoff, and Maurice will have to sort through as summer begins. The important thing for Winnipeg is that they will be asking these questions during the off-season because of their early exit. Had they won a round or two, they might have just stayed the course and had the same performance next season. With a first round exit, the team will look to make changes whether that be players, coaching, or mentality heading into next year.
While the Jets will continue to search for answers during the off-season, their mindset heading into next season might be the most intriguing aspect. Will they be content to play poorly during the regular season because ‘the only thing that matters is the playoffs’ or will they revert back to their mindset of two year’s ago that the team ‘hasn’t accomplished anything yet’. My hope is that the team takes the first round exit and uses it as fuel for next season, both regular and playoffs.