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Poor goaltending raining on our parade

Jets need to boldly go where no Chevy has gone before

<p>Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff doesn't do bold, even though bold is exactly what this Jets squad needs.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff doesn't do bold, even though bold is exactly what this Jets squad needs.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/1/2017 (1335 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

There is nothing quite like a game against the Chicago Blackhawks to get the Winnipeg Jets and their fans feeling better about things.

The Jets have played Chicago four times this season, and all four times they have emerged with a victory, including Thursday night’s 5-3 come-from-behind win at the United Center.

The Jets are 4-0-0 this season against a team that has won the Stanley Cup three times in the last seven seasons — and just 19-25-4 against everyone else.

That discrepancy makes no sense, of course. And if it’s equal parts baffling and frustrating to Jets fans, consider your counterparts in Chicago, who must surely be wondering this weekend how a team ranked 24th in the NHL standings heading into this weekend’s all-star break accounts for fully one-quarter of Chicago’s 16 regulation losses this season.

One Twitter user Thursday — former Winnipeg Free Press staffer Dan Falloon — ventured this theory, alluding to Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff’s marching orders when he took over the team in 2011:

"I think when Cheveldayoff was instructed to build a roster to beat the Blackhawks," Falloon wrote, "they didn’t mean ONLY the Blackhawks."

All of which is both hilarious and entirely the point.

While I am loath to pour rain upon a rare moment of sunshine in Jets Nation, it is essential background to note the first three times the Jets beat Chicago this season, they immediately followed up with a loss.

Many, many losses, in fact.

A Jets win over Chicago in November was immediately followed by a season-high, five-game losing skid. A Jets win over Chicago in early December was immediately followed by a four-game losing skid. And a Jets win over Chicago just after Christmas was immediately followed by home losses to the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Islanders.

If that sounds to you like a team that ups its game to play the franchise upon which they are modelled and then suffers a big emotional letdown immediately afterward, well, yeah — that’s exactly what it sounds like to me, too.

And that’s the entire problem with this enigmatic team.

Over and over and over again this season, the Jets have given their fans a tantalizing glimpse of the team they can be.

But just when they convince you they’ve finally turned a corner, they promptly turn back into the cellar-dwelling underachievers their record says they are.

NFL coaching legend Bill Parcells gets credit for coining the phrase: "You are what your record says you are." And if that’s the measure — and, really, what else is there? — the only conclusion to be drawn heading into the all-star break is the 2016-17 Winnipeg Jets aren’t a very good hockey team.

Might they become one someday?

Didn’t the venerable Hockey News do a cover story a couple of years ago in which it predicted Winnipeg would win the 2019 Stanley Cup?

Indeed, it did. But what you probably don’t know is that same publication walked back that prediction earlier this month, albeit much more quietly this time.

Hockey News scribe Ken Campbell wrote about the Jets’ abject failure to deal with their goaltending problems in a piece posted to the magazine’s website last week.

Campbell noted while Cheveldayoff has drafted five goalies over the years, he’s never drafted one higher than 59th overall. (Connor Hellebuyck was selected 130th, if you’re wondering.)

And when it comes to trades, Cheveldayoff has acquired just two goalies during his tenure.

The first move secured the negotiating rights to Jonas Gustavsson, but Gustavsson went on to sign with the Detroit Red Wings as a free agent.

The second was to acquire Peter Budaj, who was assigned to the St. John’s IceCaps of the AHL and never played for the Jets. (Budaj was last seen recording his career-high fifth shutout of the season this week for the Los Angeles Kings. Discuss among yourselves.)

Chevy’s only free agent goalie signing was Michael Hutchinson.

Put that past together with a present in which the Jets are carrying three goaltenders — none of whom have a save percentage above .910 — and Campbell says his venerable publication is having second thoughts about its bold prediction of a Stanley Cup parade down Portage Avenue in June 2019.

Campbell writes: "Those are not the moves of an organization that is being proactive about its goaltending, either in the immediate future or the long term. And when you ignore that aspect of your game, both from a drafting and developing standpoint, it’s bound to suffer and show up in the results. Back in our annual Future Watch edition in 2015, we at THN boldly predicted that based on their prospect crop, the Jets would win the Stanley Cup in 2019.

"We’re going to have to amend that because unless they do something bold to address their goaltending, the Jets can forget about winning the Cup. They’re going to continue to struggle to make the playoffs."

Alas, Chevy doesn’t do "bold."

From the moment the Jets assigned veteran goalie Ondrej Pavelec to the AHL before the start of the season, Chevy’s plan for was crystal clear: let’s see if the guy we already got — Hellebuyck — has what it takes to become a No. 1 goaltender in this league.

Chevy drafted him. And now Chevy is trying to develop him. It’s what Chevy does.

Don’t hold your breath that this team’s GM will suddenly be struck by a "bold" gene and cut some deadline trade deal for Ben Bishop (Tampa Bay Lightning) or Marc-André Fleury (Pittsburgh Penguins) — a pair of veteran goalies who come with lots of baggage and issues of their own, but who are believed to be available this winter.

<p>Charles Rex Arbogast / The Associated Press</p>
<p>Winnipeg Jets' Patrik Laine scores on Chicago Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling, during the first period Thursday, in Chicago.</p>

Charles Rex Arbogast / The Associated Press

Winnipeg Jets' Patrik Laine scores on Chicago Blackhawks goalie Scott Darling, during the first period Thursday, in Chicago.

Me? I’d take a long, hard look at the backup Blackhawks goalie the Jets beat Thursday.

While Scott Darling was unimpressive against Winnipeg, he’s got a .925 save percentage and 2.31 goals-against average in 22 games this season and is a budget option (earning US$587,000 this season) who is set to become an unrestricted free agent.

The guy is huge — 6-6, 230 — and you’d have to think he would jump at the chance to compete to be the No. 1 guy somewhere — which he’ll never be in Chicago with Corey Crawford signed through 2020.

As a bonus, Darling has a great backstory, turning his life and his career around in 2011 with his decision to get sober and deal with a debilitating anxiety problem.

Is Darling the answer for the Jets? I have no real idea.

Maybe his numbers just look better because he plays for Chicago and the shots he faces are line-of-sight and from the perimeter in a way the ones the Jets goalies face aren’t.

But what became clear to me — and also, apparently, the Hockey News — this season is what the Jets have been doing with their goaltending isn’t working, and something needs to change.

Too many nights this season, the difference has been one goal. But more to the point, the difference has been goaltending — theirs and ours.

Could Hellebuyck someday develop into a guy who can win those one-goal games for the Jets, night after night? I suppose.

But how long are you willing to wait? The Jets are currently in Year 6 of a five-year plan, and this season already looks like a writeoff.

Their playoff chances improved to just 13 per cent with Thursday’s win, and they’d need to go 18-9-3 the rest of the way to just have a better than 50-50 shot of making the post-season, according to Sportsclubstats.com.

Against that backdrop, let’s be realistic: we’re already looking ahead to Year 7 of that five-year plan, and, at some point, doesn’t "developing" a team include letting all the new young talent that wasn’t around in 2014 for the last (and only) Jets playoff appearance see for themselves what the post-season is like?

The bottom line: if nothing’s changing, nothing’s changing.

And we were promised a parade, damnit.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

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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