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Take a chance on TOOTS

Tootoo could be the explosive package Jets need

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A hungry Jordin Tootoo looking to prove the NHL wrong could be a very valuable weapon. Then again, as Tootoo has proven in the past, he could also be a car bomb about to go off in your backseat.

Signing Tootoo, should the Winnipeg Jets have the chance once free agency begins, needs to be investigated. If the market proves soft for a player of his skills and circumstances can be twisted to suit the Jets' needs, Tootoo could prove to be a useful pickup.

Rate and term need to be carefully measured and a one-year deal would go a ways to making this a manageable risk.

The upside on Tootoo makes him attractive to fans. Management? We'll see. But there's no question it's a topic among Jets fans and plenty around here would like to see the kid they call Toots in Winnipeg colours.

Jets management are a careful group. Tootoo may represent a little more risk than the Jets are usually comfortable, with but the payoff could be worth it.

Some teams will turn their noses up at Tootoo. Can the Jets afford to be so fussy? Last year's non-playoff finish would suggest they need to keep an open mind whenever talent, albeit troubled, is on the market.

Tootoo has some work to do to prove he can be trusted by an organization, and knowing the Jets management team they may be reluctant to wade into life with a player like the one-time Brandon Wheat Kings star.

The Churchill-born banger may have been speaking the truth this spring when he went public about his diminished role with the Nashville Predators, but no coach or GM wants a player griping to the media about in-house matters such as playing time.

"When you get shut down and told you're not playing, it (expletive) burns," Tootoo told The Tennessean during the Preds playoff run. "After doing everything right, it just (expletive). ... I'm (ticked) off because I'm not able to do what I love to do and that's playing the game."

Tootoo may have been right and maybe he should have been playing. But once he opened his mouth he closed the door on his future in Nashville.

For the Jets and Tootoo to make a match, the player will need to convince management he can be what they want. An effective player on the ice and a quiet citizen off of it. And not most of the time. All of the time.

I'm not talking about Tootoo's well-documented issues with alcohol. He's in recovery and continues to fight. It goes without saying that a slip would be a problem but that's a human issue and not a hockey issue. Everyone should want Tootoo to succeed in his battle with addiction. Should the Jets weigh Tootoo's previous struggles as part of the equation? Sure.

But take a look around your workplace and you'll likely see a productive member of your team with addiction issues in his or her past. Getting clean shouldn't be the end of the road but the beginning of a new one.

This player has baggage in the hockey world. His outburst didn't sit well with Nashville and now, the team that drafted Tootoo, brought him along as a player, gave him regular work in the NHL for six seasons and stood by him while he entered the league's substance abuse program, has decided to move on.

Nashville's decision is theirs but it doesn't mean the player is radioactive. If he's a fit as a player, and he could be, the Jets will do their homework and determine whether they want to make an offer.

The Jets were an easy team to play against on too many nights last season and a player of Tootoo's ability and mental makeup could go a long way in changing that. Claude Noel didn't have many answers last season when he needed a player to shake up his own crew or try to derail the opposition's momentum.

The team was never able to find a player to fill the role set for Rick Rypien after his death. Tootoo isn't a fighter of Rypien's level but he is a physical difference maker.

Tootoo has tremendous speed and is very powerful. He can track the puck and close on a player like few others in the NHL. And Lord can he hit.

Last season Tootoo had six goals and 24 assists for 30 points. Pretty good production for a fourth-line player.

The MTS Centre already has a super-charged atmosphere but Tootoo could take the building to a different place. The aboriginal community would love his presence in Winnipeg and if he can stay straight there is potential for immeasurable off-ice impact.

The Jets need to be creative to find ways to get better. They have lots of holes as an organization and Tootoo might be able to help them fill one. It all comes down to whether they think he's worth the chance.

I say minimize the risk and roll the dice.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 29, 2012 C1

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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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