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This article was published 13/9/2017 (1060 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The Winnipeg Jets have been sending two very different messages to their fans over the last week as the club gears up for the opening of training camp on Friday.
On the one hand, there is the message the club’s ownership and management sent in announcing contract extensions for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and head coach Paul Maurice — a message that says that the 2017-18 Jets "can be" a playoff team, but hey, these things take time and it’s still not a deal breaker if they don’t.
And then there was the other, very different message the team’s captain Blake Wheeler — later joined by assistant captain Mark Scheifele — sent to those same fans: an unequivocal message that the 2017-18 Jets "must be" a playoff team and yes, it’s very much a deal-breaker if they’re not.
“We know that we’ve got to make the playoffs. It’s not we hope to make the playoffs ‐ we need to make the playoffs.” –Mark Scheifele
Here’s hoping, for the sake of this club’s long-suffering fans, that it’s the players who are speaking for this Jets team right now.
Because after missing the playoffs in five of this club’s first six seasons and sacrificing, in my view, an otherwise promising season last winter on a self-inflicted goaltending problem, the last thing this Jets team needs heading into training camp is built-in excuses and the kind of safety net owner Mark Chipman just laid out for Chevy and Maurice with "multi-year" extensions.
While Chipman, weirdly, wouldn’t quantify what "multi-year" meant, he made crystal clear what message he wanted fans to take away from his decision to extend two guys who’ve never won a playoff game in this town: Maurice and Chevy aren’t going anywhere, regardless of what the Jets do this coming season.
"Our fans should understand that we have confidence in these people on a multi-year basis and I think that's sufficient," Chipman told reporters in announcing the sporting world’s vaguest extensions.
It was all a part of the same script Chipman has been reading since he bought the Atlanta Thrashers and moved them to Winnipeg in 2011: Stay the course, show loyalty and always, always, always do everything possible to lower fan expectations.
Chevy, not surprisingly, was more than happy to hop into the warm embrace of a no-pressure message like that. Asked a couple different ways by TSN’s Bob McKenzie this week whether he believes the Jets are a playoff team this season, Chevy wasn’t biting.
"I think we have the depth to be" was as committal as Chevy would get.
Now contrast all that wishy-washy from Jets ownership and management with what the team’s captain told reporters earlier last week when he was asked the same question: Are the Jets a playoff team this winter?
"It’s gotta be this year," said Wheeler. "It just has to be."
Or what Scheifele told reporters recently when he was asked the question:
"We know that we’ve got to make the playoffs. It’s not we hope to make the playoffs — we need to make the playoffs."
Yeah you do. And thank God someone in this Jets organization had the courage to say it.
Now, in a perfect world, everyone in the Jets organization would be reading from the same script — that this team had better finally make it back to the playoffs, or else.
But if you had to pick just one group to be on point and on message, you’d pick the players, wouldn’t you?
And that’s the good news for Jets fans in all this — the guys who need most to feel the urgency of the coming season are the players and the public comments of two leaders in the Jets dressing room over the past week suggest they intend to make that message heard, loud and clear, this coming season.
It’s the message the Jets need to hear. And it also has the added advantage of being entirely true.
Because what excuse do the Jets still have left not to be a playoff team? The franchise needs more time? Tell that to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who finished dead last in the league in 2015-16, made the playoffs last season and are currently listed in Vegas as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender this coming winter.
Don’t like the Leafs example? How about the Dallas Stars then, who finished eight points behind the Jets in the NHL standings last season and yet are currently listed as 12-1 to win the Stanley Cup this year — behind just the Pittsburgh Penguins (7-1) and Edmonton Oilers (9-1) — after an impressive off-season.
And the Jets odds? They’re going the wrong way. What were 40-1 odds last June are now 50-1 odds after what the oddsmakers — and I — agree was less than an impressive Jets off-season.
No, Rome — and a Stanley Cup winner — wasn’t built in a day. But there is also all kinds of evidence across the NHL that it shouldn’t take seven seasons, either, just to build a bonafide playoff contender.
This Jets team is out of excuses and time is up for the Jets to make the transition from promising upstart to legitimate contender.
Wheeler and Scheifele — to their everlasting credit — are speaking that hard truth: this Jets team is out of excuses and time is up for the Jets to make the transition from promising upstart to legitimate contender.
Because in addition to having run out of excuses, this Jets team is also, in some very important ways, running out of time to parlay some of the most exciting young talent in the league into success on the ice.
Consider: the Jets have an eye-popping 14 roster players who will be either unrestricted or restricted free agents at the end of the coming season, including the likes of bedrock pieces like Bryan Little, Jacob Trouba, Nikolaj Ehlers, Josh Morrissey, Adam Lowry, Joel Armia and Connor Hellebuyck.
Now consider this: the Jets are carrying a $67.6-million salary cap hit into the coming season. Throw in some expected performance bonuses — the Jets paid out around $4 million in bonuses last season — and this team is already getting close to the cap limit of $75 million.
Care to explain how a team like that now gives monster raises to Trouba, Ehlers and Morrissey next summer; and somehow also gets the rest of the free agents back under contract; and somehow also extends Patrik Laine, who is a pending restricted free agent after the 2018-19 season?
And does all that while still fitting under the salary cap next season?
I will wait here.
Put it all together and I will argue, once again, that while The Hockey News famously predicted the 2018-19 Jets would win the Stanley Cup, the realities of the modern NHL and the salary cap suggests the time for a run is now, not next season when that task looks like it will be vastly more difficult, not less.
Scheifele and Wheeler got it right this month — it’s time to walk the talk.
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.
Updated on Wednesday, September 13, 2017 at 3:34 PM CDT: Typo fixed.
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