This is easily explained: The Southeast is the worst division in North American sports history, and Conference III, despite the number of mediocre-or-worse teams in its ranks, is a tough out for just about any team if only because of the quality of the Blackhawks and Blues. If the Jets were ill-equipped to deal with the Hurricanes and Panthers of the world, and made few substantial personnel changes in any part of the organization over the summer, then their current 8-14-4 record against the Western Conference, including 5-11-3 in their own division, is something to which you could have set your watch on Oct. 1.
Of course, there's not a human alive who could have looked themselves in the face coming into this season and expected anything that even resembled success; that the Jets were 24th in the league entering last night's games seems just about right. You might have even been able to make a reasonable argument that they could have been worse than that.
But all the problems experienced this season — and there have been many — have nonetheless spawned a lot of speculation as to the reasons why they exist, particularly in the last few weeks, as the Jets have gone 3-6-0 in their last nine even as they swing through the East and should, in theory, be in a better position to pick up points.
These reasons have ultimately boiled down to the same kind of thing that partisan observers always blame when they don't care to actually see the real and obvious answers right in front of them: Nebulous nonsense. The Winnipeg Free Press has argued in the last few weeks that the team is now just being defeatist, they're leaving Ondrej Pavelec overly exposed, the team's “leaders” are as much a reason for this as the coach, and Dustin Byfuglien turns the puck over too often. The Winnipeg Sun, meanwhile, posits that the core stinks, they're not doing “the little things,” and they need to play with a more “blue collar” organizational philosophy, like the Bruins.
Refutations of the above points, respectively, should include: “that doesn't matter;” “that also doesn't matter;” “that's not true;” “the positives in Byfuglien's game significantly outweigh the negatives, and I'm sorry about saying 'outweigh' and 'Byfuglien' in the same sentence;” “that also isn't true;” “they're not even doing the big things;” and “the Bruins aren't a blue collar team.
(Actually, that Bruins thing is just mind boggling. They don't have any superstars? Do “the best two-way center alive,” “the best defenseman of his generation,” and “the best goalie in the league” not count?)
And so now, let's take a look at the ways in which the Jets are actually making big old laughingstocks of themselves on the ice.
1) Their goaltending is among the worst in the league.
This is well-trodden territory, obviously, but Ondrej Pavelec is the one of worst starting goalies in the NHL. Among those with 30-plus appearances, his .901 is second only to Devan Dubnyk's .895 in terms of sheer hopelessness.
That they've limited his appearances significantly this season (34 in 46 games, compared with 44 in 48 last season) is wise, because he only continues to get worse; after posting back-to-back subpar seasons of .906 and .905 in 2011-12 and 2013, respectively, he's down below that this year, which is amazing.
The league average save percentage is .913, meaning that Pavelec is 12 points behind where he'd need to be to even be the definition of middle-of-the-road. He's allowed an even 100 goals on 1,011 shots, and a goalie with a league-average save percentage would have stopped an extra 12 of those shots. Given the old standard in “advanced” stats that every six goals' worth of goal differential is worth two points (one win), then we can safely assume that Pavelec has cost the Jets two full wins, or four points in the standings.
With that having been said, the difference between 43 and a theoretical 47 points is obviously not that significant in the grand scheme of things, but 12 additional goals is a big swing. Especially considering the team's goal differential right now is minus-14.
It's worth noting, too, that the Jets are 11th in team offense, but 27th in defense, more or less for this reason.
The thing is, though, that the argument you hear from the many inexplicably remaining Pavelec defenders is that the team plays worse in front of him than they do Al Montoya, and that's why the save percentage is as bad as it is. Which brings us to...
2) They're not improving their possession numbers.
The results in the standings over the last three seasons, all of them spent in Winnipeg, have been rather bad. They've gone from 22nd, to 18th, to currently 24th. During those same three years, their corsi-for percentages in close situations have come in at 13th, 16th, and 20th in the league, meaning that they're more or less middle of the pack in terms of actually having the puck on their stick and in the attacking zone.
During that time, the save percentages they've gotten behind them are 26th, 12th (weirdly), and 22nd in the league, meaning that their goaltending has let them down significantly apart from last year. Is it really as simple as, “They suck when Pavelec is in net?” Well, yes and no. On the one hand, the team's corsi close last season was 0.6 percentage points worse with him on the ice versus Al Montoya (who by the way had an .899 save percentage in 351 minutes that season). On the other, teams tend to play their backups against inferior competition, and thus one might expect possession to be better against them as a result.
The difference is a lot more pronounced this year, at 52.7 for Montoya and just 47.2 for Pavelec in close situations, but the gap in performance (.938 to just .907) doesn't exactly bear out that things should be so bad as they are. Pavelec's save percentage in close situations was 18 points higher with only a 2.2-point bump in possession, while Montoya's is up just three points.
But let's suppose that the roster is indeed playing poorly in front of him versus the other guy, which was not the case last year. Who, then, is to blame?
3) The bottom of their roster is hot garbage.
The thing you constantly see over and over again from the Winnipeg media is that this is the best players' fault. The Core. The Atlanta Six. Whatever you want to call them, the descriptions of the ravening scribes who have to sit through every MTS Centre tragedy would make you think they walked around with a loser stink as visible as their breath on a Winnipeg February morning.
But on paper, the Jets have a pretty damn strong top six forwards and top four defensemen, do they not? If you were starting a team from scratch, you could do a lot worse than your top two groups being Andrew Ladd - Brian Little - Blake Wheeler, Evander Kane - Olli Jokinen - Michael Frolik, Dustin Byfuglien - Toby Enstrom, and Zach Bogosian - Grant Clitsome. That ignores rookies Jacob Trouba and Mark Scheifele, too.
That's the foundation of a pretty acceptable roster, one you could build around with some solid depth players. However, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has steadfastly refused to do this. That much-maligned “core,” which costs the Jets about $4.5 million per player against the cap on average, also happens to be almost the only group of Jets in the black in terms of possession.
Everyone in the city hates Byfuglien, but you'll never guess who on that blue line at 5-on-5 has the highest corsi share, or plays the most minutes, or plays the toughest competition. Maybe the reason he looks so bad is that the save percentage behind him is .876 this season; if Pavelec and Montoya were league-average behind him, his on-ice goal differential would improve from minus-18 to minus-2.
Likewise, Toby Enstrom and Grant Clitsome are also positive possession players, and Bogosian's only barely in the red. Meanwhile, Little, Ladd, Kane, Wheeler, and Frolik are all in positive territory as well. Of that top-six, only Jokinen lags behind, and mainly because he starts far more of his shifts in the defensive zone than literally anyone else on the team. (Which, I can't understand why you're counting on Olli Jokinen as your defensive center.)
The rest of the team, though, is awful against even the worst competition. Of the rest of the entire team, only Eric Tangradi and Adam Pardy are positive possession drivers. Everyone else just gets devoured, but they still get plenty of minutes because...
4) Claude Noel isn't a good coach, and Kevin Cheveldayoff isn't a good GM.
At no point in their tenure have any of the Jets' problems, real or perceived, changed in any way. Even if you think the core is bad, or makes too many mistakes, or is too expensive, upon whose shoulders does that weight ultimately fall? This was a bad franchise from Day 1, and the problems with it persist because no attempt to make a change has been made in any way.
If any reasonable observer could have told you the x, y, and z of the Jets being genuinely bad on Nov. 15, 2011, and none of those factors have changed even a little in the two-plus years since, that's a management issue. Remember all that talk about free pizzas Noel used to bring up? They're still happening, up and down the lineup, and no changes have happened. They brought in Devin Setoguchi, an already-fading light in a dark sky, to juice the offense. He has, instead, been unequivocally bad. That's the big addition of the last few seasons.
That stuff about how if you're Cheveldayoff you have to get rid of some of the roster's bad actors in addition to the coach, if that's the road you're going to go down, is crazy. In that case, you'd have to dump the whole team. Any organizational shakeup that doesn't involved Cheveldayoff getting the boot is not in any way meaningful.
Related to Cheveldayoff, and his predecessors, there is the fact, too, that the Jets have been bad forever but don't seem to have much in the way of traction in terms of their development.
5) They don't draft very well.
Now I know what you're saying: Since 2008, their first-round draft picks are Zach Bogosian, Daultan Leveille, Evander Kane, Alex Burmistrov, Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, and most recently Josh Morrissey. All but Leveille, Morrissey and Trouba have played at least 50 games in the NHL already, and Trouba is more than halfway there.
Now, it's true, Burmistrov was allowed to go back to the KHL this summer, probably in hopes of a coach giving him more than 15 minutes a night. But that was despite his corsi-for being second on the team among guys who played more than 150 minutes at even strength last year. (This obviously goes back to poor management.)
However, the number of games played by drafted Jets outside the first nine picks in their drafts is an even 50. That's across 41 selections, and 30 of those games played were by Jeremy Morin, who has been Blackhawks property since the Byfuglien trade. While it's unfair to judge draft picks within two or three years of their draft, usually more than three or four guys out of 40 sneak onto a roster, and that just hasn't happened.
6) They were in no way prepared for this level of competition.
Again, this goes back to bad management too, but when you're going into the Western Conference and you've been bad in the East forever, and you have a ton of cap space, you need to actually try to arm yourselves properly. Cheveldayoff did nothing all summer instead.
The Jets signed five free agents this summer, and you might have even heard of some of them: Jerome Samson, Andrew Gordon, Adam Pardy, Matt Halischuk, and Michael Hutchinson were the big acquisitions on the UFA market. They did, however, trade for Frolik and Devin Setoguchi, and in November, claimed Keaton Ellerby off waivers.
To be fair, their losses were Mike Santorelli (crushing expectations in Vancouver), Ron Hainsey (acquitting himself well in Carolina), and some draft picks they were just going to screw up anyway.
But still, that's not how you stock the arsenal if you want to be anything but a doormat. I guess the point of all of this is that if someone could just stop making terrible decisions about who to let coach, run the organization, and stop pucks at just about every turn, this team might end up being decent.
Instead, they're never called to account, and everyone throws darts at the only players on the team worth caring about. You can take the Jets out of Atlanta, but you can't take the Thrashers out of Winnipeg.
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