The season wasn’t supposed to start like this.
Two blowout losses to two Canadian teams that have hopes of deep playoff runs themselves stuck a knife deep into the Winnipeg Jets right out of the gate.
The Toronto Maple Leafs landed in Winnipeg to start the season and ended up taking them to the woodshed with a 7-2 thumping. Then the Jets traveled to Calgary to face a Flames team that was just victimized by the Edmonton Oilers Connor McDavid’s hat trick. And The Flames took out their frustrations on the Jets 6-3.
In both games, the Jets started well. Then as soon as they got punched in the face, they folded like a $7.99 lawn chair from WalMart.
So how did this happen? During the pre-season, the Jets could seemingly score at will on the power play. As soon as the game with the Leafs began, the Jets suddenly seemed to forget how to score with the man advantage.
And their defence with their misguidedly patented man on man approach was leaving the Leafs and Flames plenty of opportunity to set up shop in the Jets zone.
And new Jets netminder Steve Mason was supposed to be answer. At least show more consistent goaltending than previous goalies Ondrej Pavlec, Michael Hutchinson or Connor Hellybuyck had provided.
So much for that so far.
And now where do the Jets go from here? What solution does coach Paul Maurice have in mind? Go back to Hellybuyck? Re-shuffle the forwards yet again? Practice the power play and penalty killing until the players want to throw up?
The Jets entered this season with great optimism. Their young core of players were mostly all locked up to long term deals. They liked what they saw in the Western Conference and felt they matched up extremely well. Maybe they still do. The season just started after all. But the fans cries of “Same Old Jets” has already begun. And that’s something they weren’t expecting.
So allow me to throw out a few suggestions to True North. I’m just a guy who’s watched all their games and follow them closely, so a couple of things have crossed my mind.
LOYALTY IS A WONDERFUL TRAIT. TO AN EXTENT.
When the franchise packed it’s bags and left Atlanta and ended up in Winnipeg, True North had a plan for the team. They knew they had inherited a team with a losing culture. The plan was to create a new foundation for the team. Draft and develop was the way to go. Weed out the players that didn’t fit their model. Start new. Some of those guys still remain with Winnipeg because they bought into what True North was selling them. Guys like Blake Wheeler, Dustin Byfuglien and Toby Enstrom would skate through a wall for this franchise.
Jets co-owner Mark Chipman, who is the face of the franchise, really likes his guys. He retained his AHL coach, Claude Noel to be the Jets first head coach. Noel had great passion for teaching the younger players, exactly what Chipman felt the team needed after it relocated. Except Noel was never a great game manager. I remember an interview with one of the Pittsburgh Penguins scouts during the Jets second season. He called the Jets a “peculiar team.” And that they “didn’t seem to have a proper structure in how they executed their game plan.”
Eventually, Noel’s tenure had to end. And that must have been a killer for Chipman. He wants to see his guys succeed. But even he knew a change had to be made at the time. Enter Paul Maurice.
Maurice is a highly respected hockey mind. His work with European players in the NHL and KHL made him a sought out guy to numerous teams looking for advice on their European players. He seems to have a understanding for them and their cultures that makes those players relate easily to him.
But Maurice isn’t perfect either. His line juggling is predictable for the most part. Opposing teams pretty much know what they’re going to get from the Jets each night.
And the assistant coaches? That’s a real bone of contention. Goaltending coach Wade Flattery and defensive coach Charlie Huddy remained from the Noel days. Even casual fans of the Jets are aware their backend has been a pain in the backside since day one.
Defenceman Jacob Trouba for his first couple of seasons was often paired with veteran Mark Stuart. They just were not a great pairing. Many argue Stuart’s limited skills held back Trouba’s development.
And Dustin Byfuglien, although voted an All Star defenceman in the past, has been the Jets most high risk, high reward player ever. He can dominate games or be the reason a key goal is scored against the team.
And the defensive scheme in Winnipeg under Huddy has just simply never been great. I could go on for a while talking about that alone. Then there’s the goaltending.
Pavelec here, gone to the Moose, back again, and gone as a free agent. And a nice payday from the Jets to at least show for it.
Hellybuyck? Inconsistent at best. Asked to carry the load last year when he clearly wasn’t ready to. And no one knows if he’s ready to now.
A lot of that is on Huddy and Flattery. We’ve seen what they bring. At the Jets Fan Fest before the start of the season, I had the chance to talk to Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and ask him straight up why those two coaches were still on the team, considering the Jets checkered past on that end of the ice. Chevy told me flat out Maurice has always had full control over who he wants as his assistants. Always did.
Maurice remains confident in Huddy’s and Flattery’s coaching skills. Well I am sorry, but a new voice needs to be heard there too. Same old, same old just isn’t cutting it. It’s admirable when a company shows great loyalty to it’s people. But not when it’s to a detriment to the group as a whole. How many games last year alone did the Jets give up an early goal or two and forced the team to have to usually play from behind? And the added pressure that put on the forwards that went with it?
And surprise, no playoffs either. It’s time to move on and bring in new and creative process.
CHEVY NEEDS TO STEP OUT OF HIS COMFORT ZONE
Kevin Cheveldayoff is not a dumb guy. You don’t become the General Manager of a professional sports franchise by luck. In the whole, there really are not a lot of those jobs in the world. You need to know what you’re doing to be hired as one. And Chevy has done a terrific job restocking this franchise since it left Atlanta.
But Chevy has always played it safe for the most part. To date, his biggest move was the Evander Kane trade. That made many Jet fans think this guy really did have balls of steel and wasn’t afraid to make real change on the team.
Three years later, we’re waiting on the next bold move.
The Jets have a multitude of prospects. Those shelves are stocked. So why not move some of those commodities and get help now? The Jets mantra going into this season was “WIN NOW.”
Great. Now prove it.
Or is it True North has fostered a culture they’re not willing to shake-up?
During the Trouba hold out last year, one can only imagine the trade offers Chevy was receiving. He obviously didn’t hear the right one to pull the trigger. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t other deals to be made. The entire NHL is aware Winnipeg has this great young core. Bringing in some tested veteran talent could steer this team in a completely different direction.
Again, new voices. New ways of doing things.
It’s okay Chevy, make a bold move. Not everyone may agree with what you choose to do, but no one will disagree it’s a bad move to try to upgrade the team.
DEAR PAUL MAURICE, WE’D LIKE TO SEE YOU ADD SOME SPICE TO THE MIX
As I already mentioned, Paul Maurice and his forward line-ups are not exactly revolutionary. But granted, their top two lines ain’t bad either. It’s pretty much Nikolaj Ehlers/Mark Scheifele/Blake Wheeler or Matthew Perreault/Bryan Little/Patrick Laine. Switch a guy or two depending on the opponent and match-up.
And the defensive pairings are locked in stone. Trouba, Buff and Tyler Meyers on the right side, Josh Morrissey, newcomer Dmitri Kulikov and old company man Toby Enstrom on the left.
As you know Paul, it’s a long season. Throw a few new wrinkles in there once in a while. Offensively, you have the potential for a lot of fire power on those top two lines. But it always doesn’t work out that way on a game by game basis.
So I’m not here to tell you how to coach. That’s what you’re paid for, complete with a new contract. But I will offer one piece of advice I noticed last season.
If you want to try something different sometime, Laine and Joel Armia played together twice last season on the same line. Both times, the two Finns showed instant chemistry and were flying around out there like they’ve played together for years. Tap into that again some time. Just my opinion.
The season has just begun. There is still lots of opportunity to take this thing in a different direction. So to the guys at True North; we know you like to play it safe. We’ve seen you do it for seven years now. We know you like the culture you’ve created within. But your fans are ready for you to try stepping out of that comfort zone.
You have one playoff appearance as a franchise so far.
Don’t be afraid to go after more.
The season wasn’t supposed to start like this.