This is part two of a two-part article looking at the Winnipeg Jets in the Revisited Series. Part one can be found here.
In the previous article I had discussed the process by which True North Sports & Entertainment had acquired, and then relocated, the Jets. I detailed the scouting staff that had been retained, as well as reviewing their record at the draft and the consequences thereof. I reviewed Kevin Cheveldayoff and Claude Noel’s records that warranted their positions within the organization, and we watched a video on why Gretzky is the Anti-Christ to Manitobans and how Samuel L. Jackson missed his calling as a junior hockey coach.
In this part I will look at Evander Kane, the Jets roster and recent additions, some season prognostications and my general summation of the state, and future, of the franchise.
On Evander Kane
Kane is a dynamic winger who has the potential to impact any game in which he takes part. That being said, I don’t believe that he is necessarily a player who can carry a team. A good comparison might be Taylor Hall, though the sample size for both players is still relatively small. Hall plays a similar style, the same position, and there are further similarities in their game statistics thus far (Offensive zone starts and finishes, PDO, on-ice save %, penalties drawn/taken. The one area wherein Hall thus far appears to dominate over Kane is in the Corsi Rel category: Kane has shown a gradual improvement these last three years from -2.4 in his rookie year to 0.7 and up to 8.7 this past season. Hall’s numbers during these past two seasons were 10.3 and 15.2. No doubt Kane suffered as a result of playing on a bad team in Atlanta, but the Oilers have been worse than the Thrashers during that time, so we can set aside quality of linemates. As well, while Hall was sheltered during his rookie season, he went against the toughest competition the NHL had to offer last season, and his numbers improved. As a side note, neither player has managed to complete a full 82-game season.
I point this out because Hall is the prototype of a winger who appears to be able to carry a team. Granted, he was a 1st overall selection while Kane was a 4th overall pick. However, Kane, to this point, has not demonstrated the same ability to be the catalytic game-changing player at his position that Hall is. He is still potentially an elite-level left-winger and a core player around which the Jets will need to build. However, it must be taken into account that he cannot be the centerpiece of the roster as they add more pieces. I do not mean to say that Kane is a disappointment, but rather to suggest that he can not be expected to become a cornerstone around which the remainder of the roster is to be built.
They will either need to assemble a deep pool of equally talented players who together can complement and coordinate their strengths, or they will need to acquire (and here I mean draft) an elite-level center who can be paired with Kane and be that principal offensive figure around which the team can muster. Further on I will discuss the potential for the Jets season ahead and where they might finish, but in short, based on the depth and quality at center expected at this June’s draft, there may be a fortunate circumstance that allows them to acquire that needed player this spring, should the team perform to expectations.
Flying in Formation
The Jets lineup for this coming season (fingers crossed) will still be short of the elite-level talent that they so desperately need. However, where they have improved is in addressing depth scoring by adding Olli Jokinen and Alexei Ponikarovsky, and while they may not have enough defensive assets to shut down every opponent and account for injury, they ought to have enough options by rolling four lines to at least offer a threat to opposing teams.
Down the middle the Jets have some effective depth. Goaltending will depend heavily on Ondrej Pavelec living up to expectations, although Al Montoya ought to at least provide some breathing room in the schedule. The wing is the weakness for the Jets – after Evander Kane on the left-wing the talent drops off to the level of Andrew Ladd and Alexei Ponikarovsky, strong depth players but limited offensive contributors. While the right-wing is exceptionally weak with Blake Wheeler, Chris Thornburn and Spencer Machacek.
Whatever Claude Noel can extract from this roster, and with a horrific travel schedule to consider, it will need to be a winning-by-committee strategy. More than perhaps any team in the league, any success the Jets have this season will come as a result of collective effort. Kane is exceptional, but he alone isn’t the game-breaker that will single-handedly turn around this team’s fortunes. The Jets will need to add one or two more players who can help to carry some of the offensive load, or at the very least contribute to keeping the puck out of their own zone, before they can expect to climb their division (more on that later) and be considered a potential playoff team.
The basic pieces are there with Andrew Ladd, Tobias Enstrom, Evander Kane, Alex Burmistrov, Ondrej Pavelec and Zach Bogosian. Mark Scheifele ought to mesh relatively well with this group when ready, while in the meantime Olli Jokinen can contribute some offense and puck possession to the roster, provided Noel knows enough not to use him as a shutdown option.
The Jets have a great deal of flexibility on their roster over the next few years. They have only five players signed past 2015 in Kane, Ladd, Enstrom, Dustin Byfuglien, and Pavelec. Seven players are set to go to unrestricted free-agency at the conclusion of this season, while another seven are entering restricted free-agency.
It would appear as though Cheveldayoff knows that the product on the ice today is not an end-result and has left himself a number of options for the future.
What 2013 Holds for the Jets
For the 2013 draft the Jets have an extra 2nd and 3rd round pick following the trade of Johnny Oduya to Chicago (as a side note, the Canadiens currently have three 2nd round picks in what is considered to be a deep draft year. Keep an eye on this as they have numerous assets they could move in a trade either during the season or on draft day). This, in addition to owning every one of their usual selections gives them nine selections overall, with five in the first three rounds. The organization, and specifically the scouting department, will need to take a significant step forward at that time in order to gain some traction. The current roster simply isn’t good enough and there is likely only one way that it can improve over the course of the next few years.
The Hockey News has predicted that the Jets would finish 14th in the East, based on a full-season schedule. Obviously “82 games” is not going to happen, but the skepticism remains and unless the Jets can channel an incredible amount of cohesion in their locker room, as well having some of their best performers carry over from career years last season, then I suspect the THN prediction is sufficiently accurate to ballpark a disappointing season for the organization.
It is important to remember that the Jets play in the Southeast division and, assuming that there are no significant revisions in alignment during these current CBA negotiations, they need to be compared to their “local” rivals.
The Capitals appear to be in decline but must still be given a fair degree of respect. The Lightning are gradually improving around an already considerable core group and have addressed at least one area of concern this off-season by acquiring Anders Lindback, while the Panthers have shown a recent, though arguably temporary, resurgence. The Carolina Hurricanes had one of the loudest off-seasons at the draft by acquiring Jordan Staal and must be considered an improved squad when evaluating outcomes in that division.
Of the five teams in the Southeast division, Winnipeg is in the weakest position. Last season the top and bottom of the Southeast was decided by 12 points, or 6 wins. Looking at the changes that have been made this off-season, and presuming an abbreviated season takes place, oI would be surprised if the standings remain that close for a second year or if the Jets will be able to overtake the group/keep pace.
As mentioned, they have added Olli Jokinen, Alex Ponikarovsky, and retained Kyle Wellwood to the roster, but still have significant gaps in elite-level contributors. To paraphrase the song: I see a lot of feathers, but not much chicken.
The question then becomes, what might they do in response to this situation? Will the Jets sell off future assets and try to sign free-agents to expensive contracts in an attempt to create a stronger team with which to keep pace amongst their rivals? Or might they exploit their situation by using this time to acquire draft picks and stock their prospect pool while waiting for the inevitable downswing amongst their divisional rivals? Does Cheveldayoff believe that anything can be gained by risking long-term financial commitments on the open market, or that exchanging futures at the draft for established talent will return enough talent as to be of a net benefit for the franchise?
Cheveldayoff looks to be a patient and deliberate manager. From what can be gleaned of his past record, I expect that he intends to bide his time, moving the team gradually towards a more successful roster. One could argue that the Jets have a great deal of potential in the organization on account of unrealized and likely outcomes, that is to say that they appear to be primed to draft relatively high over the next few years and could leverage their assets for a maximum return. Others could just as plausibly argue that the Jets have potential simply because they haven’t much further down to go, and therefore there is a lot of “up” ahead of them.
True North Sports and Entertainment spent a great deal of time patiently putting into place their bid to purchase and relocate the Thrashers. That kind of attention to detail and patience is not likely to go out the window now that they have their team.
The Jets are likely always going to be hamstrung by their financial disadvantages, a small arena that caps gate revenue and limited opportunities for local corporate partnerships. By ironic contrast, relative to the supposed rich teams in the U.S., they are owned by one of the richest men in North America (David Thomson is currently ranked 17th in the world by Forbes). This juxtaposition will present immediate challenges to the organization, but likely ensures that, for so long as Thomson owns the team, and remains solvent, the Jets ought to be a stable organization.
Summation and What Does This Have To Do with the Oilers or Flames?
Of all the teams in the league, perhaps the Jets are both the quietest (fans notwithstanding) and most interesting. A lifetime ago the Jets of the WHA changed how the game was being played. They made hockey dramatic, interesting, exciting, and entertaining. They were the ones who re-introduced firewagon hockey as the winds of change blew in from that upstart WHA franchise on the prairies. It was to their great detriment that it was adopted and fully exploited by Glen Sather when he was building the Edmonton Oilers in the late 70s and early 80s. I wouldn’t put it past history to teach us another lesson by way of an innovative group of hockey minds on the shores of Lake Winnipeg. They’ve a long way to go, and I can’t say that I’m entirely on board with every decision I’ve seen thus far, but they are a group worth keeping an eye on.
If we were to track NHL teams along a sort of perpetual bell curve, where the rise and fall of each season were put into relation to previous seasons and the likely outcomes of those ahead, the Jets would probably be just rising above their nadir. They have several items in their favour in a strong coaching staff and what appears to be sound management. Their limited talent and lacklustre draft record inherited from the previous regime are strikes against them, but the future does appear to at least be one with possibilities. In terms of the Canadian teams, they are most certainly below the current fortunes of the Vancouver Canucks and Ottawa Senators. And the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers arguably have a headstart on collecting a talented core. Meanwhile the Calgary Flames are in a process of gradual decline such that I might argue the five-year forecast for the Jets is more promising than for the Flames. The Leafs defy statistical logic or evaluation. For Oilers fans, attention would best be paid to this potential future divisional rival. The Jets were once a strong contender for the Oilers rivalry and may be so again. For the Flames, if the league passes realignment such that the Jets play in a division with the Flames and Oilers, it may put even more pressure on their playoff hopes. The Jets are a worse team today than the Flames, but with proper management, that can potentially be turned around to mean a brighter future ahead. The Jets’ ownership and management have earned their franchise by planning ahead and laying the groundwork today for what they hope to reap tomorrow. The same cannot be said for the Flames.
The Thrashers had a number of high-end talents come their way through the draft. Management dropped the ball when it let much of that talent leave without getting decent compensation or by maximizing the contributions those players gave. Scouting also faltered as the easy picks were made at 1st or 2nd overall, but then the proverbial high-ground of drafting first in the later rounds was lost as pick after pick failed to develop into an NHL player. The Jets, thus far, have had a sort of opposite experience, where management, to date, appears to be much more competent, though scouting has yet to show signs of improvement. However, the roster lacks much of the high-end talent the Thrashers let rot on the vine.
The Jets today are a relocated team that struggles to overcome the lingering hangover of a very rocky expansion experience. They are, to some extent, a hybrid of both situations, despite the franchise now entering its 14th year. They have the captive audience enthralled with the novelty of having an NHL team, and the leeway this affords them. Yet, they have a roster that, for all the many tremendous opportunities afforded it over the years, has utterly failed to make any headway, and which today bears the hallmarks of an expansion-era team – one which struggles to win games against deeper, more talented teams.
The Jets’ scouting department, both amateur and professional, will need to improve if the team is to have any greater chance of success than their previous incarnation in Atlanta, low though that bar may be.
Based on everything I have been able to determine thus far, the Jets would appear to be a team that is intent to bide their time. The plan would seem to be to gradually gather the necessary pieces of a team to make the Jets a playoff contender. I think there is likely still some hesitance amongst the management group to pursue any deliberate decline in the standings in order to draft the franchise players usually available within the first few picks. This reticence may be an extension of their risk-averse nature, or on account of testing the level of patience and long-term support they can expect from the fan base. In either case, I don’t believe that TNSE is playing the immediate hand, but rather is focused on the long game, with the goal of bringing a Stanley Cup to the corner of Portage and Main.