Matt Hendricks arrived late to the battle but sensed no dissension within the Winnipeg Jets dressing room during his second tour of duty with the NHL team.
The veteran centre, picked up from the Minnesota Wild in a deadline-day trade, says he joined a group keenly aware it had all the tools to win a Stanley Cup but was performing well below its own lofty expectations.
That fact alone was the cause of much consternation behind closed doors.
In an interview with the Free Press this week, Hendricks said he wasn’t acquired to help mend a fractured squad, maintaining he witnessed no ill will within the ranks; he felt his job was to complement a leadership group, led by captain Blake Wheeler, that already had strong buy-in from the rest of the team to right the ship before the onset of the post-season.
'The room was as strong as when I left, without a doubt. If I was to say anything was different, it was the expectations we put on our team, on each other'
"The room was as strong as when I left, without a doubt. If I was to say anything was different, it was the expectations we put on our team, on each other," Hendricks said by phone from his home in the Twin Cities area. Hendricks wasn't available April 22 during the Jets' final meeting with the media at Bell MTS Place, two days after getting knocked from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"You go that deep in the playoffs (in 2018) and for a lot of those guys that was their first playoff experience in the NHL. So, your expectations are raised. When you play in a market like Winnipeg, a Canadian market where fans are very passionate, there’s expectations all around. I’m not saying fans’ expectations were higher than ours and the pressure and the stress got to us," he added.
"I’m saying as professionals, the expectations we placed on ourselves were as high as they could possibly be."
In the end, the Jets let themselves down, he said, after being dumped by the Central Division-rival St. Louis Blues in six games in the opening round.
The will was there but the execution went awry.
"When I got there, they wanted to take that last month or so and find that last stride. But we just never got there. We’d take two steps forward and one step back. And if you remember the year before, we were much like St. Louis in the way we were playing, where the machine was rolling," said Hendricks.
"I can’t speak on the entire season because I was only there for a little bit, but that would be what I sensed throughout the room. The feeling was we never got our game to the level that we wanted it to be at."
Sparked by three straight goals from forward Jaden Schwartz, the Blues built a 3-0 lead and held on for a 3-2 victory April 20 to eliminate the Jets. Two nights earlier, Winnipeg squandered a 2-0 lead in the third period to lose 3-2 at home, the game-winner coming off the stick of Schwartz with just 15 seconds left in regulation time.
"When I look at Games 1 through 4, it could have gone either direction. We could have easily won four straight or vice versa. It was tight, tight hockey every night," said Hendricks. "In Game 5, when we’re up 2-0 in the third period and we lost, that’s a dagger. And then in Game 6, we didn’t have the start that we wanted, basically 40 minutes of just not good hockey, just not Winnipeg Jets hockey.
"You envision a long playoff run and just like that it’s over and you’re left sitting there thinking, ‘How the heck did this just happen?’ It’s frustrating."
Hendricks, who turns 38 in June, played 60 regular-season games with the Jets in the 2017-18 season and suited up for five more in the playoffs before signing with the Wild in the summer. He saw spot duty there in 22 games this season before Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff spun a deal to get the gritty, 11-year NHLer for his ability to slot into the bottom-six forward group, his leadership and strong locker-room presence during the stretch run.
'If I had a chance to play I’d give it everything I had and do what I do to help the team, but there wasn’t a ton of expectation on me playing games. That really isn’t what I signed up for. I wanted to come up there and be a part of Winnipeg and be a part of a potential playoff run'
If his acquisition Feb. 25 for a 2020 seventh-round draft pick came as surprise to some, it certainly wasn’t to the man on the move.
"This wasn’t one of these deals that got done and I had no idea it was going to happen. (Wild GM) Paul Fenton asked me what I thought, and I saw it as the best opportunity to go win," he said. "I played there the year before, I knew the foundation of the team, I knew the way the Paul (Maurice) coaches, I knew the systems and, most importantly, I knew the makeup of the locker room.
"When I looked at Winnipeg’s lineup, I didn't see holes. To be honest, I didn’t see an opportunity for me to go in. If I had a chance to play I’d give it everything I had and do what I do to help the team, but there wasn’t a ton of expectation on me playing games. That really isn’t what I signed up for. I wanted to come up there and be a part of Winnipeg and be a part of a potential playoff run."
Ultimately, it was another playoff disappointment for the native of Blaine, Minn., who played three seasons (2010-13) on some very good Washington Capitals squads and endured post-season failure there, too.
Hendricks, who has played 607 regular-season NHL games (54G, 62A) and another 39 playoff contests (1G, 1A) with the Colorado Avalanche, Capitals, Nashville Predators, Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota and Winnipeg, said the sting of those playoff shortfalls takes a toll. Yet, he counts the Jets' thrilling victory over the Predators in seven games last season as a career highlight.
"I would say not winning has definitely been a downer for me… that empty feeling, knowing the mission wasn’t complete," he said.
"The run we went on last season was the longest run I had made in the NHL, so that was probably the most fun I’ve had at the NHL level. Absolutely, the Nashville series was just an incredible experience."
An unrestricted free agent July 1, Hendricks won’t get a contract offer from the Jets and will be hard-pressed to find employment around the league if he wants to extend his playing career another season. He dressed just four times in March, picking up an assist, throwing nine hits and blocking three shots, while averaging about eight minutes of ice time. But he definitely looked a step behind at times.
Right now, he's still not prepared to make what could be an inevitable decision.
"I don’t know. I’m going to take some time and think it over. I’m not ready to say I’m retiring, yet. I’m going to see where I stand among the players in the league now and what my job would be if I was to go back and play," said Hendricks, who had just returned from his son’s soccer game. He and his wife have seven-year-old twins, a boy and a girl.
"I’m still emotional after losing out like that, and you don’t want to make any harsh decisions. Or, you don’t want to make the tough decision too early, is a better way of putting it.
"If this is my last season, then I’m extremely grateful for being able to play this long, play a game that I’ve wanted to play since I was five years old. I’m extremely thankful to all the people along the way, the people, management, but, most importantly, all my teammates and what they’ve done for my personal life as well as my professional life."
'Eventually, I definitely want to stay in the game. I still have a ton of passion for hockey. At what extent or what I’ll be doing, I’m not 100 per cent sure where that shoe drops and what role I’d be in initially'
Drafted out of Minnesota high school hockey by the Predators in 2000, Hendricks played four years at St. Cloud State and then spent six years in the American Hockey League before cracking the Avalanche roster during the 2009-10 campaign.
Hendricks, a character guy who has supported the military on both sides of the border by supplying hockey tickets to men and women in uniform during his career, said with all that playing experience under his belt he’d strongly consider coaching.
"Eventually, I definitely want to stay in the game. I still have a ton of passion for hockey. At what extent or what I’ll be doing, I’m not 100 per cent sure where that shoe drops and what role I’d be in initially. Coaching is something that would definitely be on my radar down the line," he said.
"But right now I think I need to spend some time with my kids."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).