October 22, 2019

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Cracks in the ice

Jets pack up early amid whispers of fractured locker room

Opinion

There was no smoking gun. That's just not the Winnipeg Jets way — to air any potential dirty laundry in public. They'll keep things bottled up as tightly as possible, trying to create the illusion of a united front.

But as players and coaches gathered for an autopsy on their 2018-19 NHL season Monday, there were enough clues dropped about how the body ended up in the morgue. And they all point to something suspected for quite some time about this club, one with such lofty expectations that came up painfully short: there were a multitude of issues, both on the ice and off.

Exhibit A: head coach Paul Maurice's take on one of the priorities heading into next season.

"We’ve got a few ruffled feathers in there that we’re going to have to flatten out before we get going," Maurice offered up, without providing any further details.

There was no smoking gun. That's just not the Winnipeg Jets way — to air any potential dirty laundry in public. They'll keep things bottled up as tightly as possible, trying to create the illusion of a united front.

But as players and coaches gathered for an autopsy on their 2018-19 NHL season Monday, there were enough clues dropped about how the body ended up in the morgue. And they all point to something suspected for quite some time about this club, one with such lofty expectations that came up painfully short: there were a multitude of issues, both on the ice and off.

Exhibit A: head coach Paul Maurice's take on one of the priorities heading into next season.

"We’ve got a few ruffled feathers in there that we’re going to have to flatten out before we get going," Maurice offered up, without providing any further details.

Winnipeg Jets Executive Vice President & General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/JOHN WOODS

Winnipeg Jets Executive Vice President & General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.

A juicy tidbit. And you don't need to be an ace detective to figure out that speaks to a fractured group with bruised egos and hurt feelings. Players that were not all pulling in the same direction, especially as the going got tough and the Jets lost their grip on first place in the Central Division down the stretch. They fell in the playoffs in six games to the St. Louis Blues — including an embarrassing near no-show in Game 6 on Saturday in which they mustered all of six shots through two periods.

Exhibit B: general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff's answer on the mood of Monday's one-on-one exit meetings.

He admitted they were "not similar at all" to last year's final hurrah, after the Jets put up 114 points and went three rounds deep in the playoffs and the positivity was palpable.

"Lots to digest, lots to transcribe within our own group and the discussions within that room with myself in that room, pretty frank, pretty blunt," said Cheveldayoff.

"For me... you’re not in the dressing room every day. You might stop in the room for a cup of coffee or you talk to the coaches or maybe you get a chance to pass by players at different points in time. There’s a sanctity of the dressing room that always remains. So for an opportunity for me to discuss and ask questions and have a open forum for players to be frank as well, whether it’s frank with me or frank about anything. There’s that dialogue that does ebb and flow in that regard."

Winnipeg Jets' Mark Scheifele, left, beside team captain Blake Wheeler on the podium Monday in near-silence, allowing Wheeler to answer almost all questions.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/JOHN WOODS

Winnipeg Jets' Mark Scheifele, left, beside team captain Blake Wheeler on the podium Monday in near-silence, allowing Wheeler to answer almost all questions.

Cheveldayoff said he doesn't believe there's any ongoing issues in the room going forward. But — label this one Exhibit C — he also raised some eyebrows when he opened the door to potential changes to the leadership group, which includes captain Blake Wheeler and assistants Mark Scheifele and Dustin Byfuglien.

Scheifele sat beside Wheeler on the podium Monday in near-silence, allowing Wheeler to answer almost all questions. Byfuglien had apparently hopped in a cab and left Bell MTS Place before public relations staff went to get him so he could meet the media — as did 15 of his teammates.

I've previously advocated for Josh Morrissey to be given a letter, and was happy to see Cheveldayoff mention the young defenceman by name. My read of this room is there's too much of a divide between the existing leaders and the very young core on the team, which includes stars such as Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic. Morrissey has the ability to be a perfect bridge.

"Josh is an extremely important piece of the team moving forward here. We talked about leadership with him. He’s been a captain wherever he’s played. He’s a well-respected guy, he plays hard minutes, plays big minutes," said Cheveldayoff.

Maurice also touched on the now infamous players-only, closed-door meeting in the final week of the regular season, which set off alarm bells that all was not right in Jetsville.

Winnipeg Jets' Josh Morrissey could be a bridge between the younger Jets' players and the veterans.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/JOHN WOODS

Winnipeg Jets' Josh Morrissey could be a bridge between the younger Jets' players and the veterans.

"You’re a lot more worried when you’re coaching a team and they aren’t having any (such meetings). You’ve got to have two or three a year. And you need a couple of dust-ups, usually on the ice. We had a way better one last year on the ice with Benny (Chiarot) and (Wheeler)," Maurice said, referring to a skirmish that broke out during a March 2018 practice.

"This is a competitive, snarling sport when it’s played right, and you need a bit of that."

Exhibit D, your honour.

There have been suggestions Maurice has lost the room and a coaching change should be considered. That isn't going to happen. Not when he has the trust of the most important member of his team.

"The coach isn’t on the ice, the players are on the ice. We’re the ones that are accountable. (Maurice is) one of the most winningest coaches of all time in the history of this game. So, I think his record speaks for itself. Obviously, I’d go through a brick wall for the guy. I don’t want to play for anyone else. That’s where I stand," Wheeler said, in direct response to a question about whether a new voice might be needed behind the bench.

A clean-shaven Patrik Laine speaks to the media at the end of the Jets' season at the Bell MTS Centre on Monday.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

A clean-shaven Patrik Laine speaks to the media at the end of the Jets' season at the Bell MTS Centre on Monday.

However, don't be surprised if the full off-season review of hockey operations doesn't include assessing the work of long-time assistants such as Charlie Huddy, who focuses on the defence, and Wade Flaherty, who works with the goaltenders. Team defence was a major sore spot this season, and netminder Connor Hellebuyck struggled, at times, to regain his Vezina Trophy finalist form.

Huddy and Flaherty were original Jets hires in the summer of 2011. Perhaps it's time for some fresh eyes?

"There’s never been a waning confidence in the coaching staff on my part. Again, it’s a tough battle for them. Again, like everything in this organization, we’re going to spend some time looking at it as a group of management, from an ownership perspective," Cheveldayoff said.

"We didn’t get to where we wanted to... and that’s win a Stanley Cup. So, we’re going to look at all aspects of this organization and see where we can improve."

In the past, Maurice has said every coach has a shelf life, where their voice stops being effective. On Monday, he admitted his message can take a toll, especially on young players.

Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice characterized his team as having "a few ruffled feathers in there."

THE CANADIAN PRESS/JOHN WOODS

Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice characterized his team as having "a few ruffled feathers in there."

"It’s not always easy or kind. I wouldn’t that say my relationship with every player over the course of a year, and it changes with different players, is warm and fuzzy by any means," he said.

"If I was a guy in there rubbing backs and kissing babies and was that style, then you’d go, ‘Hey, yeah, the players like you but they don’t play hard for you.’ But I’m not always as gentle or warm and fuzzy with the players as I am with you guys (media) every day," the coach said.

"I appreciate the fact that sometimes when you’re developing a young team, it’s hard. And players don’t like it... It’s a tough environment sometimes."

Another exhibit, for the record.

And it's going to get a whole lot tougher for Maurice, Cheveldayoff and the players if a longer-than-expected off-season doesn't produce tangible results when the puck drops for 2019-20.

At that point, the evidence a much bigger fix is needed would be overwhelming.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Winnipeg Jets' Nikolaj Ehlers.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/JOHN WOODS

Winnipeg Jets' Nikolaj Ehlers.

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

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.

Read full biography

History

Updated on Monday, April 22, 2019 at 7:02 PM CDT: Fixes photo captions.

7:04 PM: updates thumbnail photo

7:09 PM: Fixes typo in deck.

7:14 PM: Final edits

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