Say What?! Jets problems begin with Wheeler

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/04/2019 (1260 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Say What?! is an email conversation between sports editor Steve Lyons and retired sports columnist Paul Wiecek. Look for us regularly — but intermittently — on the Free Press website.

Steve Lyons: Heya —how’s it going there? Definitely spring like the last week here — I imagine there is still ice on the lake, right?

An early spring vacation for the local hockey team — lots of hand wringing going on here in River City. Was out with friends on Saturday after they lost and one grown man was having a tantrum. Geez.

There were huge expectations for the Jets this season — frankly, they never seemed to get it in gear with any consistency all year, so the inconsistency in losing to the Blues should not have been unexpected.

Guess we could try to dissect all the reasons for them losing — there’s a few for sure — but I’m anticipating we might be in agreement today (shockingly) on the biggest problem.

I believe I read this in a text from you: any team that loses that many games in the third period all season and then chokes like it did in Game 5 vs the Blues, has a serious leadership issue.

We heard rumblings of locker room troubles over the last half of the season and then players and head coach Paul Maurice spoke about it on Monday in their end-of-season availability with the media. It now seems this team was not pulling together and hence fell apart.

I’ve asked around over the last couple of days about this and the answer I’ve heard is that Captain Blake has lost the room and there’s a schism between his message and the younger players on the team.

Blake Wheeler speaks to the media at the end of the Jets' season. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Listen, I’ve said many times in this space that I’m not a fan of Wheeler’s condescending tone. I’ve also heard I’m not alone in that sentiment. Now I’m hearing the eye-rolling is not just from folks outside the dressing room.

Maurice intimated there’s some relationship repairs to be done over the summer. No guff. Wheeler starts a new five-year, $8.25-million a year contract next season.

There are very few things that Blake Wheeler and I ever agreed on, but we are both on the same page about who’s to blame for this debacle.

Paul Wiecek: Asked on Monday where the finger of blame for his team’s abbreviated season should be pointed, Wheeler had this to say: “I would say you point the first one at me… It’s my job to get this team kind of to that next level.”

Yeah it is — and you failed at it. Badly.

To me, the first sign this team was in big trouble — and that the trouble started with the guy wearing the ‘C’ — came back in February when the Jets traded at the deadline for Matt Hendricks.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Winnipeg Jets Matt Hendricks

Hendricks had posted the grand total of two assists in just 22 games with the Minnesota Wild prior to the Jets acquiring him and was not, to say the least, the kind of player you’d think a team with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations would be bringing aboard.

But the Jets — and Wheeler — explained away the deal by extolling what a great leader Hendricks was in the dressing room. All of which made me wonder: I thought leading this team was Wheeler’s job?

You know you’re in trouble when you have to take on a guy who is worthless on the ice to make up for your huge deficiencies off of it.

It didn’t work, of course. Hendricks is a bad hockey player, not a miracle worker, and nothing was going to fix a Jets team that looked rudderless by season’s end.

Now, it’s not all Wheeler’s fault of course.

Some of the problem also rests with Dustin Byfuglien, an assistant captain on this team who took one of the most selfish penalties I’ve ever seen in the decisive Game 6 when he tried to take on the entire St. Louis bench, just to show us all what a tough guy he is.

Dustin Byfuglien took a selfish penalty in Game 6. (Jeff Roberson / The Associated Press)

Byfuglien got called for roughing because of course he did. And the Blues promptly scored on the ensuing power-play because of course they did.

Me? I’d strip the letters off both those guys and start all over again.

What a huge opportunity lost for this team. With all the contenders dropping like flies in the first round, the Jets had a clear path to a Cup laid out for them if they only could have gotten their act together.

And with monster salary cap issues now facing them, I wonder if years from now we don’t look back at this season as this franchise’s last best chance to hold a parade to Portage and Main.

Steve Lyons: Of course you understand that’s probably never going to happen right? Can you imagine the problems you’d have if you took the C away from Wheeler? Maybe you could get away with taking the A away from Buff and giving it to someone like Josh Morrissey or Adam Lowry.

So if Wheeler is going to remain the captain for the foreseeable future, it seems to me that he’s going to need a different approach — which would mean he’d need to admit his current approach isn’t working. I have not witnessed the captain’s willingness to admit there’s something wrong, or that he might be wrong in the past — but who knows?

Mark Scheifele should not be let off the hook either — he sat up there on Monday beside Wheeler and barely said a word. My understanding is he’s supposed to be a bit of a conduit between Wheeler and the younger players, but he’s kinda turned into a mini-Wheeler with his snarkiness.

Mark Scheifele (left) was mostly quiet during the final press interviews of the season. (John Woods / The Canadian Press)

I don’t know about the you, but didn’t you work better — back when you did that, haha — when you were having fun? I sure do. I’m not sure the Jets were having much fun this season.

It’s going to be a very interesting off-season.

Paul Wiecek: I have no illusions that Buff or Wheeler is going to lose their letter. Look how long it took this franchise to run Claude Noel and Andrew Ladd out of town. Heck, Ladd might still be the captain if he hadn’t gotten so greedy.

This is a franchise that is loyal to a fault. They will ride Wheeler and company all the way to the ocean floor.

Change is coming for this team, but unfortunately it’s going to be of the variety that is forced upon them by the salary cap instead of the stuff that really needs to happen.

Steve Lyons: Any thoughts on how they will handle the UFAs and RFAs on the team this summer?

Notably, Kevin Hayes; Brandon Tanev; Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot are all UFAs while Andrew Copp; Patrick Laine; Kyle Connor and Jacob Trouba are RFAs.

No way Hayes comes back and the other three UFAs will get significant multi-year offers from other teams that the Jets won’t be able to match.

Have to imagine Laine, Connor and Copp will end up with bridge deals. No way Trouba signs a long-term deal here, so this will be the summer the team needs to finally accept they will be moving forward without him.

There is little chance Jacob Trouba will sign a long-term deal in Winnipeg. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press)

Make someone take the contracts of Mathieu Perreault and/or Bryan Little with him — good luck — and make some sort of deal already.

Paul Wiecek: I’m on the record in these pages, for years now, that Jacob Trouba wants out of Winnipeg and I was pleased to see this week that he’s finally stopped lying otherwise.

Asked on Monday if he wanted to be back, Trouba’s clipped answer amounted to “meh,” which is the closest he’s come to telling the truth about his desire to remain in Winnipeg since his holdout a couple years back. He’s as good as gone.

I love the idea of attaching an untradeable contract like Little’s as the price for prying Trouba away from the Jets. It would simultaneously solve a problem and get rid of a problem at the same time.

I’d agree Myers will also probably find a more attractive elsewhere in the free agent market, but I’m not so sure Chiarot won’t be back. If both Trouba and Myers are gone, they’d need Chiarot back on the blue line and would have some salary cap space to make it happen.

I wouldn’t give Laine anymore than a bridge deal until I was sure exactly what I have in the guy. Is it the sniper from the first two seasons or the guy who looked lost for huge swaths of this season? I need to see more before I’d sign on the bottom line of any long term deal with Laine.

But Connor? If I could lock him down long term right now for a decent price, I’m doing that all day. The longer you wait on that kid the more his price is only going to go up.

Steve Lyons: In a heartbeat. Have been so impressed with his progress: the compete level matches the skill level which equals one special player. But if you were him, would you settle for being locked down at a ‘decent price?’ If I was him, the lowest I’d go is $7.5 a season over six years.

Mark Scheiflele (left) could soon be making less money than Kyle Connor (right). (Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Man, Mark Scheifele is gonna be looking up at a lot of salaries in a year or two — just sayin’.

On the bright side — other than Game 2 vs the Blues, I thought Connor Hellebuyck looked like a playoff-tested goalie and Adam Lowry threw his weight around and played like a guy who could definitely lead a team with his on-ice play and off-ice demeanour.

Who’s the favorite now for the Cup? First time ever all four division champs were ousted in the first round — imagine if Barry Trotz leads the Islanders to the Cup a year after taking the Caps all the way and then not being given a decent contract for his efforts?

That’s my pick by the way. Isles beat the Blues in six games in the Cup final.

Paul Wiecek: Hmmm. I picked the Blues to beat the Jets in six and I see no reason to get off that pick now. Good goaltending will take you a long way in the playoffs and judging by his performance against Winnipeg, I don’t think this moment is overwhelming Jordan Binnington.

I will go with Blue Jackets to come out of the east. It’s been so long since they swept the Tampa Bay Lightning — remember those guys? — that everyone’s forgotten about them.

But they’ve already beaten the best team in the league — in years — so I don’t see any reason they can’t run the table in Eastern Conference.

But my bottom line is still the Blues. In six again.

Steve Lyons: Before we get off the Jets, did I tell you about my Jets experience on my trip to Jordan?

I’m in a hotel elevator in Wadi Musa — the town adjacent to Petra — and I ask the young folks going up with me in the lift where they’re from. The proudly pronounce ‘We’re from Winnipeg, Canada.’ It just seems no matter where you go in the world, you’ll bump into someone from Winnipeg.

The young adults are students at Westgate Mennonite Collegiate and they were on a school trip visiting Jordan after a week in Israel. Did you go on trips like that as a kid?!

After the learned I was the sports editor at their hometown newspaper, I heard more than one or two Go Jets Go chants that evening and the next morning.

By the way, can’t say enough about what a great place Jordan was to visit. We’ll have a story about it in our Travel section next month.

Paul Wiecek: I always find it interesting spotting Winnipeg sports merchandise being worn in other parts of the world because you instantly know with almost 100 percent certainty that the person wearing it is from Winnipeg.

It’s not like that with other merchandise. A guy wearing a Yankees ball cap could be from Atlanta or Albania. Same thing with Red Sox, Patriots, Lakers, even Leafs stuff.

But see a guy in a Jets t-shirt or a Bombers cap and you can be almost assured he’s from somewhere between the Ontario and Saskatchewan borders.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods Jets fans celebrate right winger Patrik Laine's goal during the first period.

It reminds me of the years I was a Deadhead, traveling from show to show. The band would set up for three nights in some huge city, Chicago for instance, and their followers would be instantly recognizable — tie-dyed, long hair, reeking of weed and patchouli — to all their other followers. It was like a small city moving within a larger city.

That doesn’t happen when the Stones come to town.

Steve Lyons: Think I’ve mentioned this before: wearing a Yankees cap as a fashion item is weird, but you’re so right — you see it everywhere.

How is your team doing this year? I haven’t watched much baseball this spring — I get enough sports all day long at work, so my TV viewing of sports is not like your average fan. I did, however, watch a full day of sports a couple of Sundays ago. I’m sure you heard about the Tiger thing, right. What were you saying?

Paul Wiecek: Never has one man done more to resurrect a dying sport than Tiger winning the Masters.

Tiger Woods’ win at the Masters has rekindled Tigermania, making him ‘the’ draw at events. (Jason Getz / Atlanta Journal-Constitution files)

In the long run, it won’t do anything to bring back the 10 million golfers who have abandoned the sport in North America over the last 15 years — or the 1,200 golf courses that have closed over the same period.

But for one fleeting weekend, the TV ratings were boffo and a lot of old white guys got to pretend their sport was relevant again. So there’s that.

Steve: Nice save 😉

Time for me to get some real work done bud — always great to chat with you.

Next up, Goldeyes; Valour FC and the Bombers.

Oh, and he Downs opens on May 11 — we should get out there for an evening this summer.

Paul: A day spent around horses is always a day well spent. 

 

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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