Time to set the bar higher

Opinion


Winnipeg Jets players, coaches and management served up a heavy dose of sound bites this week in a series of year-end Zoom calls where a few familiar themes emerged.

They felt they overachieved this season, surprising many who felt they would struggle just to make the playoffs. They are a tight-knit group that love playing for each other and this community. They believe in their foundation and the idea of brighter days ahead. And they are likely going to stick with the same patient approach that has become their blueprint, trusting it will one day lead them to the promised land.

Rinse and repeat.

Talk is cheap. As always, it’s the results that should speak loudest. Yes, Winnipeg won its third playoff round in franchise history with a sweep of Edmonton, only to crash and burn against Montreal. But surely the bar should be set a bit higher for an organization with a rock-solid core spending to the salary-cap ceiling, now with 10 years under the guise of general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and eight under the helm of coach Paul Maurice.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Winnipeg Jets' head coach Paul Maurice (right) and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff.</p>
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MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Winnipeg Jets’ head coach Paul Maurice (right) and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff.

I probably don’t need to remind you that the Vegas Golden Knights, who will celebrate their fourth birthday later this summer, are about to drop the puck on their third Stanley Cup semi-final appearance in that span.

Rather than rehash everything that was said during these exit interviews, I want to focus on three important things we didn’t hear much about. And why that should be setting off some alarm bells going forward.

Action:

Maurice and Cheveldayoff spoke for approximately 75 combined minutes on Friday, and almost none of that time was spent offering up anything tangible about what they are going to do to improve the club’s chances of a championship.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying on our part. We asked plenty of specific questions on the usage, or non-usage, of young skaters such as Ville Heinola, the idea of Connor Hellebuyck’s stellar play in net masking many of the team’s warts, potentially moving out someone from the forward core to fill a hole and why the blue-line remains such a work-in-progress, three years after a run to the Western Conference final.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t much in the way of specifics coming back. They stuck to their usual talking points, spoke of drafting and developing and trusting the process and not rushing too many kids into the lineup at once. There was plenty of spin, including Maurice referring to his left defence as being “stacked” as he discussed why Heinola couldn’t get more playing time. I’m not sure I’d describe the group of Josh Morrissey, Derek Forbort, Logan Stanley, Nathan Beaulieu and Jordie Benn in such glowing terms.

Packing Bell MTS Place in a post-pandemic world shouldn’t be taken for granted. Expectations today are different than a decade ago when the team arrived here from Atlanta. The fan-base that has every right to expect more.

Accountability:

The performance from Mark Scheifele was quite… something. Rather than offer up anything resembling a mea culpa for taking himself out of the second-round with a reckless hit against Montreal’s Jake Evans, Winnipeg’s top offensive player doubled down on the “woe is me” act, blaming the NHL department of player safety and even the media for what he felt was unfair treatment of him and his team.

Mark Scheifele was suspended for four games for a hit on Montreal's Jake Evans after an empty-net goal in the final minute of Game 1 of the North Division final. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)</p>
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Mark Scheifele was suspended for four games for a hit on Montreal’s Jake Evans after an empty-net goal in the final minute of Game 1 of the North Division final. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Cheveldayoff provided his own detailed reply to the issue, breaking down an argument that clearly fell on deaf ears with the league about why they believed Scheifele should have skated on a four-game suspension.

I’m not sure where Scheifele’s “you counted us out from day one” stance comes from, either. I had the Jets making the playoffs in my pre-season predictions, as did plenty of other local and national scribes and broadcasters. Sure, most of us figured they’d be easy fodder for Edmonton, but pretty much everyone picked them to beat Montreal.

I get that the Jets seem to love the “us against the world” mentality and thrive with a bit of a chip on their collective shoulders, even if it’s at least partially a product of their own imagination. But I’m not sure blaming everyone else for your problems is a sound strategy. A little self-reflection would have been nice.

Anger:

Aside from lobbing some grenades at George Parros and the press, you didn’t get the sense anyone was particularly unhappy with anything.

Contrast that to what we saw in Colorado on Thursday night from Nathan MacKinnon, who found no silver lining in winning the President’s Trophy this year and being nominated for the Hart as league MVP.

“I’m going into my ninth year next year and haven’t won s–t,” MacKinnon growled after his team was eliminated in the second round by the Golden Knights.

We didn’t get anything resembling that from Jets players, who must feel at least privately they let a golden opportunity to at least represent Canada in the final four this year slip out of their hands. They were the favourites, with home-ice advantage, against the Habs, and it all went south so quickly.

I’m not saying they should have come out spitting fire, but nobody should be satisfied with the status quo.

The Jets have often talked about how they are “comfortable being uncomfortable,” which speaks to the resilience they have shown. But if they truly want to build a winning culture of excellence around here, you simply can’t have a situation where players, coaches, management and ownerships get comfortable with just being comfortable.

One important thing we did learn this week is that Cheveldayoff and Maurice aren’t going anywhere.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff isn't going anywhere.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff isn’t going anywhere.

So now the focus shifts to an important off-season, one that includes the Seattle expansion draft, an amateur draft with limited viewings of prospects (the Jets will pick 18th overall) and free agency which includes getting new deals for key RFAs such as Andrew Copp and Neal Pionk, making decisions on their own UFAs such as Paul Stastny, Mathieu Perreault, Tucker Poolman and Laurent Brossoit, and exploring the UFA market and potential trade market.

Life isn’t going to get any easier for Winnipeg next season. They’re headed back to the Central Division, with the likes of powerhouse Colorado, rapidly improving Minnesota, solid foes in St. Louis, Nashville and Dallas, and re-building Chicago and new arrival Arizona.

No question there is an impressive core in place, starting with Hellebuyck in net and one of the deepest forward groups in the league. But it would be a shame to waste these prime years of those players simply spinning the wheels.

Was that magical spring of 2018 really the peak for this franchise, rather than a sign of what was to come?

The Jets are very good at talking the talk, which was on full display the past few days. But pressure in this market is ramping up for them to start walking the walk, as well.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

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