Opinion

The Winnipeg Jets have become a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, and the search for answers is only going to intensify in the coming weeks as the confounding hockey club heads into a longer-than-expected off-season.

The Winnipeg Jets have become a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, and the search for answers is only going to intensify in the coming weeks as the confounding hockey club heads into a longer-than-expected off-season.

We have ample evidence to suggest they are simply not good enough. See back-to-back beatdowns last weekend in Florida, where they were completely outclassed and outscored 13-5, as the latest in a long list of exhibits. Official playoff elimination is the next shoe to drop, and that could come as early as Tuesday night when they face the New York Rangers.

But it’s the question of why that must be put under a magnifying glass. And those of us hot on the trail of this particular whodunit had a couple interesting clues tossed our way the other night. First up was this proverbial smoking gun from leading scorer Kyle Connor, who was asked to explain ugly back-to-back outings against the Panthers and Lightning.

Pierre-Luc Dubois (from left), Kyle Connor and Paul Stastny (Justin Tang / The Canadian Press files)

Pierre-Luc Dubois (from left), Kyle Connor and Paul Stastny (Justin Tang / The Canadian Press files)

"I don’t know whether it’s tired, you know, lack of motivation (in) some of the guys in the room or, you know, what it is, we’re definitely a frustrated group here," said Connor. "It’s tough. Yeah, there’s a slight chance, but there is a chance to make playoffs here. And, you know, two critical games and, you know, we put up that kind of effort."

No fingers were pointed, of course. That’s not Connor’s style. But plenty of suspicion ought to be raised by his choice of words.

For the sake of argument, let’s give the high-flying winger the benefit of the doubt and suggest it was just a poorly phrased statement born of frustration, one that wasn’t meant to be as bad as it came off by implying some guys are simply mailing it in. How, then, to explain this rather salacious soundbite from Paul Stastny, in response to a query about why his team keeps reverting back to so many bad old habits, now 76 games into an 82-game campaign.

"The guys that take care of themselves, the guys that put in the work on the ice, off the ice, over the course of the year. I don’t want to say they raise their game, but they kind of stay consistent. And what happens in the season is if you’re not focused, you’re not dedicated, you’re not ready to go every single night, it gets away from you real quick," said Stastny. "That’s why we play this game for, we love the competition, we love the fight. And we love to win. If you’re not all there together, it’s tough to win in this league."

Winnipeg Jets owner Mark Chipman probably doesn't like seeing thousands of empty seats at home games. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press files)

Winnipeg Jets owner Mark Chipman probably doesn't like seeing thousands of empty seats at home games. (Fred Greenslade / The Canadian Press files)

Again, no specific shade was cast by the veteran forward, but you don’t have to be a modern-day Matlock to figure out something is amiss. We have seen it on the ice countless times this year, whether it’s the inability to start a game on time, an inability to string together more than a few good shifts in a row, the inability to play sound defence or the inability to go on any kind of win streak. They are the polar opposite of consistent. And there appears to be plenty of "I in team" at times.

Now we’re starting to hear it in the voices of some of the exasperated players and even interim bench boss Dave Lowry, who appears to be at his wit’s end when it comes to his message to his troops going in one ear and out the other.

Paul Maurice added to the intrigue by pulling the plug just 28 games into the year, a decision that still hasn’t been fully explained. There’s clearly more to this story, and whether it ever comes out entirely remains to be seen. A handful of players, including captain Blake Wheeler, have hinted they might have more to say about it once the season is over.

Put it this way: Monday May 2, which is expected to be so-called "garbage bag day" for the Jets as final meetings with coaches, management and the media are held, has the potential to be pretty spicy.

Winnipeg Jets General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has been here for 11 years. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Winnipeg Jets General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has been here for 11 years. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Connor had more to say following the latest lopsided loss, including the suggestion that these final six games down the stretch "are a good time to start building culture, to having the right attitude in the group." That’s a pretty damning indictment of the current roster, considering the vast majority of this core has been together for several seasons now.

Which ultimately speaks to the need for a full-blown forensic audit of this franchise over the coming months. And that brings me to one more burning question: Who, exactly, will be conducting this all-important investigation?

Is it going to be general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff getting yet another shot to get this right? He’s now 11 years into his tenure, among the longest in that position around the league, and seemingly as far away from ever as being a Stanley Cup contender. They came close in 2018, but they’ve trended in the wrong direction ever since.

Will it be his boss, Mark Chipman? We know he is a very hands-on owner, and you likely won’t find someone who hates losing more than him. Now, he’s not only seeing it on the ice, but in the stands as well, with the Jets typically playing to between 1,500 and 2,000 empty seats on a nightly basis.

Kyle Connor says the team is frustrated. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Kyle Connor says the team is frustrated. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Or might the organization think outside the box here a bit and do what so many other NHL teams have done and bring in an experienced and sharp hockey mind to review the entire operation and present some difficult but necessary truths? There are numerous examples of this around the league, including Jim Rutherford in Vancouver, Brian Burke in Pittsburgh, Bob Nicholson in Edmonton, Luc Robitaille in Los Angeles, Jeff Gorton in Montreal, John Davidson in Columbus and Brendan Shanahan in Toronto. They serve as a buffer between owner and GM, an extra layer of oversight that can prove valuable.

Nobody asked me, but it might be time for usually tight-knit and extremely loyal True North to make such a move around here. Otherwise, you run the risk of tunnel vision. And that’s a recipe for disaster.

This season is now a lost one, of that there is no doubt. And as the Jets come to a critical crossroads, figuring out why it all went wrong — and taking the necessary steps to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself — will be paramount.

Follow the evidence. Leave no stone unturned. Fail to do that and everyone involved in this messy mystery can point the finger of blame directly at themselves.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

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.