Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Jets' clique too soft on themselves

Call these 5 key players the 'Atlanta Association'

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John Woods / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS archives
Jets captain Andrew Ladd and his cabal of cronies from the Atlanta days could force one another to play harder, but they�d rather not jeopardize their friendships.

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John Woods / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS archives Jets captain Andrew Ladd and his cabal of cronies from the Atlanta days could force one another to play harder, but they�d rather not jeopardize their friendships. Photo Store

Until someone is willing to break from the clique and demand more from his peers, the Winnipeg Jets will continue to be losers.

The current leadership group has allowed itself to stagnate. To hover around .500 and to accept mediocrity.

We've seen it this week, with the Jets supplying a superior effort in a win over the New York Rangers and then playing soft, uninspired hockey in a loss to the dreadful Florida Panthers. They know they are better than their record but they're unwilling to push one another to the next level. They're a comfortable little club and they're going nowhere.

Effective leaders don't stand idle when their peers are inconsistent. Players can demand more from one another in the most effective of ways. In three years we have not seen this from the Winnipeg Jets core leadership group.

Guys like Olli Jokinen and Mark Stuart know the right way and it's great when they voice their opinion, but if there's to be change, it must come from higher up.

There is a hierarchy in the Jets dressing room and at the top is a group of players who bonded together in Atlanta. Those friendships are taking precedence over results and they are rotting away any chance of success for the Jets.

Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little, Toby Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien. All talented, all well-paid and secure. And all at the top of an underachieving team.

About five years ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs had "The Muskoka 5," a group of players that held their inner sanctum's interests above those of the team. That group was comprised of five key players: captain Matts Sundin, Darcy Tucker, Bryan McCabe, Thomas Kaberle and Pavel Kubina. "Muskoka 5" implied these players were comfortable merely playing out the season and spending the summers in lake country.

Here in Winnipeg, we have the Atlanta Association. A clubby set where calling one another out is forbidden.

Don't tell me Ladd can't see the difference in the work ethic and will to win between this group and those he won Stanley Cups with in Carolina and Chicago. Ladd is both perceptive and a player, who for the most part, personifies the characteristics required to win. He works hard at practice, goes to the tough areas on the ice and is willing to put his body into the action. Maybe he has his off nights, but if the Jets had 10 Andrew Ladds they'd be a playoff team.

And I don't think Ladd is a bad captain. But I have to question whether he's the right man for this situation.

Ladd isn't the problem. But he hasn't been able to effect a solution. Given a couple of veterans who could demand respect in the room and push for change, Ladd might succeed.

But his support group isn't helping him. They don't have the personalities for it and it's not going to change.

Good people? Sure. But leaders? The type to stand up and tell his best friend he's not getting it done? Nope.

Last season, Winnipeg fans watched Byfuglien's weight balloon before their very eyes. It wasn't until coach Claude Noel yanked GM Kevin Cheveldayoff into the fray anything changed. The players just repeated their mantra of what a "special talent" Byfgulien is.

This year, it's Wheeler playing like a point guard and firing up one three-pointer after another. The crease? That's something in Wheeler's pants, not an area on the ice with which he's familiar.

Byfuglien has for the most part eliminated the fitness issues, but still plays the game like he's on a pond in his native Minnesota. Is Byfuglien an all-star this season? Most likely. But the defensive lapses will prevent him from achieving Norris Trophy consideration.

Coaches have been nudging Byfuglien in the right direction his entire career, and he's made strides. But what would a push from a teammate do for him? Sadly, we don't have that answer.

Wheeler has all the talent to be a top-end player, but needs to be constantly pushed to perform like a big man and not a perimeter player. He's never going to be a banger or a fighter and that's not what anyone should expect.

Wheeler has to go to the net, however, and needs to be in the middle of the ice, fighting traffic. No doubt the coaches have told him this. But the difference between Perry Pearn showing him something on video and Ladd or Little leaning into his ear on the bench and setting him straight is vast. So too would be the results.

There's an old-school mentality missing from this group. The Chicago Blackhawks have it. So do the Boston Bruins. A group of players that demand the most from one another. By the time Hawks coach Joel Quenneville starts beefing about somebody's work, the player has already heard about it from the next stall.

Jacob Trouba has this steel, but at 19 and less than 20 games into his NHL career, it's a little early to expect him to stand up and force his teammates to be accountable. There will be an evolution in terms of leadership with the Jets, and Trouba will one day captain this team. He'll have the support of Zach Bogosian, and together they'll demand a higher, more consistent effort.

But it's not happening today. The results prove otherwise. The Jets don't expect one another to bring it each and every night.

Neither should you.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 7, 2013 C3

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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