Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ladd must crack whip hard

Jets need strong leadership from the captain and his lieutenants

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Claude NOEL and his staff can install the system, reinforce it with practice and demand accountability, but sooner or later, the players must decide to perform like men or continue playing like boys.

Andrew Ladd will be front and centre in this maturation of the Winnipeg Jets' and more important than goals scored will be the captain's ability to force growth from within the dressing room.

Ladd can't and won't be able to do this alone, but there's no question leadership must rank first among the improvements required for the Jets to be a playoff team.

Team defence and road record were glaring deficiencies with the Jets last season and much of the needed repair can come through mental adjustment.

There are already indications this process has begun to take hold. Veterans have taken the approach that excuses won't be accepted this season.

The poor goals-against mark and the confounding road record all stem from a subpar mental approach. It must be corrected they say. It will be corrected, they say.

"It's important to set the precedent right away. We don't have that time to feel it out and get to know each other and work through things as you go," said Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg's leading scorer last season. "We need to hit the ground running and establish that we need to play a certain way and do certain things that will make us successful. Anything short of that won't be acceptable."

The Jets were a solid 23-13-5 at home but a dismal 14-22-5 away from Winnipeg.

Home games were fun and a celebration of the NHL being back in Winnipeg and the players were swept up in the ride. But emotional letdowns on the road happened again and again.

Winnipeg's 246 goals against last season ranked 26th in the NHL. The Jets allowed an average of 2.95 goals per game.

None of these add up to winning statistics. But they are statistical areas where more focus and discipline can have a major effect.

"You have to have that frame of mind no matter where you play, you have to have that full 60 (minutes)," said veteran centre Olli Jokinen. "If your goals against are over three or in the high twos, you won't win."

The coaching staff will bring the team to the water with strategy and systems. But Ladd, who was unavailable for comment on Friday due to other commitments, and his peer group must convince the entire team to drink.

"Leadership will be huge for us. There are good leaders in place here with Ladd and guys like Mark Stuart and Chris Thorburn. You have to lead by example in everything you do but then you must also have that mindsetthat guys are ready to go each and every night," said Jokinen. "Especially with this schedule. You can't have nights off. Doing things right on and off the ice to get wins. Being an older guy, you have to show how important it is to do the right things to be ready... Everybody should know you can't lose two or three games in a row."

Fact is, Ladd is the young captain of a young team and he has some work to do. His resumé as a leader is incomplete to this point. Same goes for the bulk of the men who support him.

Being prepared to win and having the proper mental attitude required to complete the job all starts at the top in the dressing room's hierarchy.

Much of the Jets' success or lack thereof depends on Ladd and his lieutenants.

"We have a good mix. Guys that speak up and let it be known when we're not doing things right and guys that lead by example," said Wheeler. "You need guys that practise what they preach."

The coach will harp and scream on these issues but at some point, the peer group must insist on execution.

On numerous occasions last season, Noel made the case for his team's leadership group being strong.

But inconsistency is not the hallmark of a well-led team and if there's one thing the Jets could be counted on for last season, it was their ability to be up and down from game to game.

What goes on in the room is difficult to ever know. But the end results are laid bare for all to see.

Strong leaders don't accept failure. It must be Ladd and his support group that leads the Jets out of this non-playoff existence.

They must demand and get more from their team.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 12, 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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