So this seems to be capital-T, capital-S The Season in Winnipeg. Blake Wheeler is already out here saying, “This has to be the year we make the playoffs again” and that sort of thing. The people of Winnipeg, writ large, have always had eyes that were too big for their stomachs when it comes to their team, but now a bar has been very definitively set.
This has to be the year they make it.
When you’re drawing that kind of a line in the sand, after 11 years in Atlanta, six years in Winnipeg, two postseason appearances, and precisely zero playoff wins, you’re supposed to be sending a message to the fans: “Yeah, we know things haven’t been great, but we’re going to turn it around this season.”
With that kind of statement comes an implicit promise: “If we don’t, things will change.”
But now, with Winnipeg extending both GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and coach Paul Maurice for multiple years yesterday, it’s a poorly-run franchise almost immediately going back on that promise. Now, nothing is going to change — at least operationally and almost certainly not on the ice — regardless of whether this team can bumble its way into another playoff appearance and, more likely than not, another early exit.
Not that these two higher-ups should have been forced to spend the season living under threat of job loss if the Jets didn’t make the playoffs — as outlined in this week’s PDPR, Wheeler’s statement looks an awful lot like an over-promise — but the failure to do so might, or perhaps should, have been enough to finally get True North to kick the tires on more substantive changes.
This is, however, an organization seemingly pathologically devoted to simply being “happy to be here.” You have to try very, very hard to get fired. How apparent was the need to swap out Claude Noel before it finally happened? That was a bad hire from the start, but after two straight seasons only barely above .500 in a league in which almost everyone should be around .500, they let him come back for No. 3, then replaced him with Maurice.
The problems with Maurice’s systems have been explained time and again. Too many penalties, poor goaltending, too many — to use Noel’s favorite term — “free pizzas” for opposing offenses in terms of just giving away scoring chances, particularly on the rush. And the penalties thing is exacerbated by the fact that Winnipeg routinely has some of the worst special teams in the league; in Maurice’s three full seasons, the Jets’ power play goals per 60 ranked 19th, 28th, and 20th. The good news is they’re generally good at drawing penalties, but if you can’t put the puck in the net, that’s a problem.
More problematically, because the Jets take an absurd number of penalties, they give up an absurd number of power plays under Maurice — roughly 288 per season versus a league average of about 250 — and ranked 12th (not bad!), 25th, and most recently 28th in goals against per 60 on the PK.
How that all circles around to these extensions, of course, is that Winnipeg is a consistently just-okay-at-best team at 5-on-5, which is totally negated by the fact that they can’t get anything going on special teams and gets consistently bogged down with poor goaltending because of all the scoring chances given up going the other way.
Probably the one aspect of the sport over which the coach has the most direct control is special teams performance, and Maurice’s clubs are consistently not where you’d want a team with playoff aspirations to be. Full stop. So to extend him now, when promises are being floated, ties the club to this coach for at least a few more years. Where that gets them, well, it’s not easy to say. Maybe they go on a PDO bender like they did in Maurice’s first full season and scrape into the playoffs. Sell another 30,000 or so tickets before they get bounced by some Western Conference superpower, and you call it good.
But the thing is, this is a team with a pretty high talent threshold. Mark Scheifele finished seventh in NHL scoring last season and he’s only 24. Blake Wheeler has been sneaky-good for a long time, and Bryan Little is probably in that same boat except he’s a little sneakier with it. Patrik Laine and Nik Ehlers are both high-end prospects in terms of talent, and one suspects we’ll be able to say the same of Marko Dano and Kyle Connor in the near future. Mathieu Perreault? Great middle-six option. That’s to say nothing of guys like Logan Stanley and Jack Roslovic, who are probably a year or two away.
Meanwhile, on the blue line, things are a little iffier. Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba are undeniable stars, and while Tyler Myers has never lived up to his early-career promise, he’s perfectly alright. Toby Enstrom had “it” at one point but no longer does. Maybe Josh Morrissey injects some life into the proceedings this season, but also Dmitry Kulikov and Ben Chiarot are flat-out liabilities.
Then in net, you have Steve Mason, who now has to answer the question of whether the four-plus years of his career in which he was good (his first in Columbus and first three-plus in Philadelphia) or four-plus years in which he was bad (his final three-plus in Columbus and last in Philadelphia) are the true indicator of his talent. And he has to do that behind a defense that is, traditionally, quite leaky. The other options are Connor Hellebuyck, who’s now officially an unknown quantity after showing so much promise early on in his career at both the college and pro levels, and Michael Hutchinson, who probably doesn’t have too many more years of pro hockey ahead of him.
Which brings us to Cheveldayoff. He is, of course, the guy in charge of this roster and you can see above where he’s done a mostly good job. Plenty of talent, well-stocked pipeline.
And then, the “but.”
But: Look how he spends his money, especially on the back end. He’s still dealing with a Mark Stuart buyout on a contract that was bad the day it was signed. The Kulikov contract is a disaster in the making. Look how long it took him to make any kind of move with Pavelec, and he was allowed to leave passively, rather than actively, to the detriment of years of team performance.
Cheveldayoff also has nine RFA deals to sign starting after 2017-18, many of which he can expect to be quite pricey. He also has to replace Enstrom as a top-four defenseman, or re-sign him, at what might need to be a bargain price. And Little needs a new contract. More broadly, the talent distribution on this roster is top-heavy to say the least, and that’s on the GM as well. Good depth guys really aren’t that hard to find, but Cheveldayoff has effectively made a mess of it for years anyway.
Moreover, this team hasn’t effectively developed too many prospects apart from Scheifele, Ehlers and Trouba, until very recently (and both those guys were high picks, so you’d expect them to be good). A few may be moving toward that level, but other than that, have they gotten any legitimate NHL players out of the crop of seven years’ worth of picks (52 in all) since they hired Cheveldayoff? It’s one thing to have a lot of promising prospects, which, again, Winnipeg definitely does. It’s another entirely to ferry them successfully to the NHL and sprinkle them throughout the lineup. Winnipeg has done it arguably five times in seven years. It’s not good enough.
But “not good enough” seems to be the pervasive theme with the Jets as a whole. The coaching hasn’t been good enough. The performances haven’t been good enough. The goaltending hasn’t been good enough. The development hasn’t been good enough. And most of all, the pressure exerted on management and coaches by ownership to make it reach “good enough” status has not been good enough.
And now, with these two baffling extensions, it won’t be for at least a little while longer.
The message is clear: There are no consequences in Winnipeg for being not good enough.
In fact, it’s actively encouraged.