For the past two years I’ve expected the Jets to make their long-awaited breakthough as a playoff contender. Since moving to Winnipeg, they’ve teased their fans by coming oh-so-close, only to fall short. This season was no exception. Having recovered from a mid-season meltdown, the Jets seemed poised to make a serious run for a playoff berth, only to go into a familiar swoon in March.
I’m continually amazed over how a team possessing the talent of the Jets continues to underachieve. On paper, there’s enough depth there for this team to be a playoff contender. A roster containing stars like Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler, Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien, Bryan Little, Tobias Enstrom and Zach Bogosian should be capable of more than what we’ve seen from them over the past couple of years.
Some Jets fans will undoubtedly uses excuses to explain the club’s problems this season. Injuries hampered Kane, Bogosian and promising youngsters Jacob Trouba and Mark Scheifele. Starting goalie Ondrej Pavelec was inconsistent. They lacked sufficient depth in checking forwards and shutdown defensemen. They waited too long to make a coaching change.
Excuses, however, only go so far. The Jets aren’t a rebuilding team anymore. They should be performing at a higher level by now.
When the Jets moved to Winnipeg from Atlanta, the club’s new ownership made significant changes in the front office and behind the bench. It was believed the Jets, in their previous incarnation as the Thrashers, were mismanaged and poorly coached. New general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and head coach Claude Noel were supposed to build and mould the Jets into a contender.
Three years later, Noel is gone and Cheveldayoff is no further ahead than his Atlanta predecessors.
Noel’s interim replacement, Paul Maurice, seemingly rescued the Jets season. Early in his tenure, the Jets became one of the hottest teams in the league from mid-January to the Olympic break in early-February. Entering March, they were jostling with Dallas, Phoenix and Vancouver for the final wild card in the Western Conference.
All too predictably, however, the Jets fell apart, winning only five of 15 games from March 4 through April 1. They entered April seven points out of contention, their playoff hopes all but dashed.
The Jets reportedly want to extend Maurice beyond this season but he’s yet to decide (based on family reasons) if he’ll commit. If he does return, what Jets team will we see? The one which won ten of 14 games from mid-January through March 1? Or the one which once again faltered down the stretch?
If Maurice isn’t the right coach, or if he won’t return, the Jets must find a bench boss capable of wringing more positive consistency from the lineup.
A number of Jets fans consider Pavelec’s goaltending as their Achilles heel. With three years at $3.9 million per remaining on his contract, trading him probably isn’t an option. If the Jets are to bolster their goaltending, they’ll likely have to use one of their two compliance buyouts on Pavelec.
Lack of experienced leadership is another oft-cited reason for the Jets inconsistency. Bring in a couple of respected veteran leaders, the critics say, and they’ll provide the proper motivation.
If the salary cap reaches $71 million next season, Cheveldayoff will have over $21 million in cap space to pursue such leadership via trades or free agency.
Should Cheveldayoff go the trade route, which players should he offer up as bait? Kane is often singled out as the best trade chip, but the Jets GM could be loath to part with such a promising young forward. Blake Wheeler, Andrew Ladd and Bryan Little could attract solid returns, but they’re also the Jets most consistent forwards.
Byfuglien and Enstrom could become trade bait but both carry annual cap hits in excess of $5 million along with no-trade clauses. That will limit potential trade partners.
Whatever moves Cheveldayoff has in mind, they cannot be the same cautious tinkering of the past three summers. The Jets core doesn’t need to be blown up, but one or two of their better players will probably be shopped to bring in the kind of help this team needs to take the next step toward playoff contention.
Jets fans are commendably patient and, judging by the season ticket renewals (97 percent), very loyal. Still, that cannot be taken for granted. Winnipeggers and Manitobans may be happy to have the Jets back, but like most hockey fans, their patience has limits.
Cheveldayoff is entering the most crucial off-season of his tenure as Jets general manager. The moves he makes this summer will not only affect the Jets development but also his tenure as their general manager.