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GLENDALE — Maybe it was watching Connor Hellebuyck smash his stick in half over the crossbar after getting scored on by a teammate during Thursday’s morning skate in Denver.
Perhaps it was Dustin Byfuglien breaking his lumber on the boards that night after Jacob Trouba stayed on for an entire two-minute power play, leaving the veteran Winnipeg Jets defenceman glued to the bench and likely seething over coach Paul Maurice’s refusal to put him back on the top unit.
Later, Byfuglien was caught completely out of position on the overtime winner by Colorado, and apparently carried his anger over into the room following the game, a source told me Friday.
Speaking of which, maybe it’s the obvious tension felt every time you enter the room these days, especially in the wake of a lengthy, players-only meeting earlier this week in Minnesota which should be setting off alarm bells, and seemingly did little to calm the waters.
Or the repeated cancelled skates and media availabilities, the latest coming Friday here in Glendale. That’s the third one this week alone, as ones on Wednesday and this past Sunday were also axed in favour of off-ice meetings; a strange tactic, indeed, for a team that sure looks like they could use a practice or two
Whatever the case, I have no hesitation in saying that something is wrong in the state of Denmark right now, to quote Shakespeare, and I have no doubt the famous playwright would have loved what’s going on with the Jets, given his obvious fondness for all things dark and tragic.
Yes, things appear to be rotten to the core with this team in a way that goes beyond the often lethargic, uninspired play we’ve seen on the ice far too many nights lately.
The exact details of what is going on within the dressing room remain a mystery, just as what went down in that 23-minute closed-door meeting Tuesday night will likely remain inside the room. And while I’m not about to start feeding the rumour mill, both myself and fellow Free Press hockey writer Jason Bell have heard from multiple sources that things are anything but rosy with this group, and it’s obviously having an impact.
The Jets appear to be as fragile as it gets, the latest example being Thursday night’s game in Colorado in which they almost predictably turned a 2-0 lead into a 3-2 overtime loss, leaving them with just one win in the last six games and a below .500 team over the past two months, truly limping to the finish line of the regular season with only Saturday night’s final game against Arizona left before the spotlight really starts to shine.
The latest defeat likely prevented them the first-ever division title in franchise history, and might end up also costing them home-ice advantage in the opening round of the playoffs, which begin next week.
There is no urgency being shown, and players almost seemed resigned to their fate right now. There’s no joy to be found. Even the morning skates looks sloppy, such as the one at Pepsi Center Thursday where even the most basic, five-foot passes seemed to be a struggle. There was not a lot of pace, passion or chatter, just a going-through-the-motions type of feel to it all.
I suggest the Jets are at a fork in the road, where things can go one of two ways: either they author one heck of a redemption story, seemingly coming back from the dead and going on the lengthy playoff run that many, including myself, predicted when the season began, or else this really is the beginning of the end, and we’ll all be looking back at this past week as where it all came unravelled on their way to a quick and certainly painful post-season exit.
With that being said, I’m here to suggest there’s at least one glimmer of hope on the horizon: enter Josh Morrissey, who just might be able to save this stumbling squad from itself.
The smooth-skating, top-pairing shutdown defenceman with plenty of offensive punch is working his way back from a shoulder injury — suffered here in Arizona during a Feb. 24 game courtesy of a Vinnie Hinostroza hit — and is expected to be ready in time for the playoffs.
His presence on the ice is sorely missed. The Jets are 10-11-1 without him this season and 36-19-4 with him, but I believe his most valuable contribution might come in ways that can’t truly be measured.
Morrissey is a future captain and without a doubt one of the most intelligent, well-spoken players not just on the team, but in the NHL. It’s no coincidence he won the Western Hockey League’s scholastic player of the year award in 2013 while playing for the Prince Albert Raiders.
I believe Morrissey should already be wearing an “A” on his sweater, but those are currently occupied by Mark Scheifele and Dustin Byfuglien. I would encourage Jets management to re-visit that issue as early as this summer. It’s clear all was not well on that front anyways when general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff felt the need to go out and re-acquire 37-year-old Matt Hendricks at the trade deadline, apparently at the urging of his existing leaders.
In hindsight, that alone should have been a red flag that something was amiss with this group.
At 24 and now in his fourth pro season, Morrissey has the respect of the whole room and represents a bridge between the older core on the team such as captain Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little and Byfuglien — who almost never speaks publicly despite it normally being part of the job description — and the next generation of stars including Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic.
He’s got one more year left on his contract before signing what will likely be a long-term extension with the club.
We’ve already heard this week talk from Wheeler about a lack of maturity in the room and a need to get everyone on the same page and pulling the rope in the right direction, presumably rather than against each other. Troubling signs, indeed.
Maybe, just maybe, Morrissey’s pending return might bring a calming influence to what appears to be a pretty combustible situation right now. It may be a lot to ask of a young player coming off a major injury, but I have no doubt he’s up to the task
Morrissey is a natural born leader. The question is, are many of his teammates prepared to follow him?
We’re about to find out. If they don’t, things are about to get a lot more heated around these parts.
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.