Jets appear to be on course for continued mediocrity
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When the going got tough last season for the Winnipeg Jets, it was often Paul Stastny who stood in front of the microphones to deliver a healthy dose of truth serum.
Whether it was discussing cheating the game by sacrificing defence for offence or the need to get everyone on the same page and pulling in the right direction, the veteran forward rarely pulled any punches.
Now, just a month away from the start of training camp and a new campaign, Stastny has served up another strong message: In his eyes, the hockey club as currently constructed simply isn’t good enough.
How else to explain the fact that a player who twice waived his no-trade clause to come to Winnipeg, who has close friends such as Blake Wheeler and Nate Schmidt still on the squad, and who recorded major milestones here including his 1,000th game, has opted to sign a one-year, US$1.5 million deal with the Carolina Hurricanes?
The Jets would have happily paid that money, and then some, to retain the services of a player who finished sixth in team scoring last year with a rock-solid 21 goals and 24 assists in 71 games, on top of being a well-respected leader who wasn’t afraid to hold himself and his teammates to account. But in his exit interview with the media last spring, Stastny made it clear that at the age of 36, playing for a legitimate contender is a priority. And while he’d be open to extending his stay in Winnipeg, he wanted to first hear and see what the plan was going forward after a disappointing year where they missed the playoffs.
Clearly, Stastny isn’t buying what general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is selling.
He joins a list of forwards from last year’s team to exit, along with fellow regulars Andrew Copp, Evgency Svechnikov and Kristian Vesalainen and depth pieces Zach Sanford, Austin Poganski, Adam Brooks and CJ Suess. Replacing them are the likes of Cole Perfetti (limited to just 18 games last year due to injury), David Gustafsson (who should get a longer leash), Morgan Barron (acquired for Copp at the trade deadline), Mason Appleton (re-acquired at the deadline) and Kristian Reichel (also injured last year). UFA signings such as Kevin Stenlund, Saku Maenalanen and Alex Limoges will get looks in the pre-season.
The crowded blue line remains exactly the same. The backup goaltending position has switched from Eric Comrie to David Rittich. The organization hired Sara Orlesky away from TSN to be part of their in-house broadcast team. And that, in a nutshell, is the summer of 2022. Which clearly wasn’t enough to convince Stastny to stick around for another shot.
There’s been one significant change, of course, in the hiring of Rick Bowness as head coach, along with a new staff including associate bench boss Scott Arniel, after attempts to bring Barry Trotz to town weren’t successful.
Look, I’d be all for undergoing a full-blown youth movement, shedding some costly veterans and turning the keys over to the next core of players. A little short-term pain might lead to long-term gain, the way it did following the 2015 campaign, which resulted in a 2018 run to the Western Conference Final. I suspect many fans would be on board if that was the plan and it was clearly communicated.
But given what’s happened — or, more importantly, what hasn’t happened this off-season — it’s hard to get a read on exactly what direction Winnipeg is going.
Bowness, at the age of 68, wasn’t brought in to oversee a lengthy rebuild. We already know the Jets tried to sign experienced UFA forwards such as Calle Jarnkrok (who went to Toronto) and Danton Heinen (who re-signed in Pittsburgh), suggesting they felt the status quo isn’t good enough. Wheeler and his US$8.25 million cap hit remains in the fold as well despite plenty of trade rumours, so no cap space has been cleared allowing for any signings or potential trades.
It’s been eerily quiet on that front, especially on defence where it’s hard to see how some promising young players on cheaper deals are going to find a spot. Logan Stanley, Ville Heinola, Dylan Samberg, Johnathan Kovacevic, Declan Chisholm and Leon Gawanke are all staring at a depth chart that includes five veteran rear-guards (Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Nate Schmidt, Brenden Dillon and Dylan DeMelo) who will combine to make US$25 million this year, or nearly 33 per cent of the entire salary cap.
If the plan truly is to run it back with that same group this year, with the hope that Bowness can get them to play a smarter, safer game in their own end, then it’s clear the Jets are trying to be many things at the same time. The result might have them stuck in the dreaded murky middle — not good enough to be a bona fide Stanley Cup threat, but not bad enough to be among the basement-dwellers who will have a shot at a franchise-altering prospect such as Connor Bedard in next summer’s draft.
Maybe they overachieve and grab a wild-card spot and sneak into the playoffs. Or, perhaps they underachieve and just miss out. Either way, it appears to be a recipe for continued mediocrity. Considering Mark Scheifele, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Connor Hellebuyck are all two years away from being able to walk as free agents, that doesn’t seem like a solid, long-term strategy upon which to build.
Unless something changes in the coming weeks and Cheveldayoff has a few cards up his sleeve he’s yet to play, there’s a good chance the going will get tough once again for the Jets this season. Only this time, Stastny won’t be around to talk about it. He’d clearly seen enough and got going.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.