There was a time when Winnipeggers were extremely excited to have an NHL team again.
When the Atlanta Thrashers made a fairly hasty retreat from the American South, the optimism was overwhelming. Sure, the Thrashers had been a disastrous franchise, making the playoffs once in 11 seasons, but the perception was that there were so many problems with the team simply because they were located in Georgia. Attendance numbers were dismal, not in any way improved by the fact that the team was as well. And no matter who was in charge, the team was almost always poorly coached and more poorly managed.
But a new team — any new team — for a hockey-mad market that had been abandoned 15 years earlier was something over which to be excited. It didn't matter that the Thrashers were terrible, and carried a roster littered with dead-end players. It only mattered that the Thrashers were an NHL team.
The people that bought the Thrashers and bundled them out of the heat and humidity did what they thought was best to air out the loser stink that had seeped so deeply into the fabric of the franchise, like an old hockey bag you have to leave on the back porch for a week after a long season. They fired basically everyone they could, a lot of the front office staff, the coaches, and so on. They had to keep the players, because that's how it goes. If they'd had their druthers, a lot of those guys probably would have gotten shipped out too.
But the problem with that strategy is now apparent. Rick Dudley wasn't a great general manager. Nor did Craig Ramsay have much success in his only year behind the bench. Their being fired was among the least-surprising things in franchise history, probably tied with the fact that they still haven't won a playoff game.
Blindly gutting as much of the team as possible, though, hasn't worked out either. Kevin Cheveldayoff has proven himself to be woefully out of his depth as the general manager, as he routinely makes baffling personnel decisions that in no way make his team more likely to squeak into the playoffs. Claude Noel lasted two and a half seasons behind the bench before rightfully being canned (a total of 178 points in the standings over 177 games, and never especially near the playoffs). He replaced only recently by NHL retread Paul Maurice, whose success has come mostly in comparison with his predecessor (41 points in 35 games, a 96-point pace).
The excuse for so, so long in Winnipeg, whenever something went badly, was that this was the Thrashers' fault. A little too much Atlanta in the way that they played, as if by simply moving to a Canadian city, the team was supposed to play a little harder, a little smarter, and a lot better. In particular, there was much lamentation of every turnover by Dustin Byfuglien, every muffed pass from Evander Kane (the Most Atlanta Players the Jets had, if you follow the meaning).
Noel loved to talk about his defense's tendency to give up what he called “free pizzas” to the opposition — that is, turnovers which resulted in high-quality scoring chances — as though he were somehow not in charge of how the team played.
And still people came. Canada is head over heels in love with hockey, obviously, and the second the Jets were a team that existed once again — and by the way, the tackiness of calling the team the Jets is off the charts — people were basically throwing all their money at the team. The line to buy season tickets was immediately long, and has remained so to this day. The team store couldn't keep jerseys and hats on the racks. The media fawned over every win, blamed the Atlantaness of it all for every loss, and excused away every curious decision. It takes a lot of hubris for an organization and entire city to believe that just by changing geographical locations, but Canadian hockey has always had hubris by the bucketful.
This enthusiasm — which has made Winnipeg itself a darling of the league — has also led to a lot of its undoing. Because the Jets could do no wrong for most of the last three seasons, not too many eyebrows were raised by all the losing. Now, to be fair, it takes time to dig any franchise out of the gutter (that's more or less where Atlanta was) so the patience was indeed prudent for a time. The blinders, however, were not.
The thing about the Jets is that on paper, they shouldn't be bad. They have a solid top six in Kane, Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler, Michael Frolik and Mark Scheifele are all good players, and all of them are south of 30 years old. They a blue line more than a few teams would trade their own for straight-up, with Byfuglien, Toby Enstrom, Zach Bogosian, Grant Clitsome, Jacob Trouba, Adam Pardy, and Mark Stuart. Maurice isn't a bad coach, either; he's just not a particularly good one.
Perhaps the biggest issue, then, is that these players are good, and none of them save for Byfuglien and maybe Kane — the two most-criticized on the team, historically — are actually capable of being great. But being merely good in Winnipeg appears to be grounds for everyone to get raises that aren't exactly commensurate with their output. Among the forwards, no one is surprisingly overpaid apart from Wheeler, but the defense is another matter. Enstrom makes more than Byfuglien for reasons that defy explanation. Bogosian makes nearly as much.
Sometimes, though, you don't even have to be good to continue getting paid, way too much, by these Jets. Stuart — who's about the seventh-best defenseman on the team — is fifth-highest in pay (albeit at an affordable-ish $2.625 million), but got a four-year extension this summer with a modified no-trade clause following his third straight abysmal season. Chris Thorburn got three years at $1.2 million per — a substantial raise — despite the fact that he is terrible.
Most egregiously, though, they continue to pay Ondrej Pavelec, by far the worst starter in the league (career .906 save percentage, all with Atlanta/Winnipeg, with only one season out of five at better than league average) a whopping $3.9 million against the cap, and will do so next year, and the two seasons following. And the thing is that it was only around the middle of this year, when the events leading up to Noel's firing really started convening, that Pavelec was subjected to any considerable amount of criticism. He has been known for making a lot of athletic saves — you know, because he was so far out of what should have been his actual position all the time — and when you combine that with the perception of a poor defense, you get an easily-defended goaltender whose embarrassing stats can be explained away.
The fact is Pavelec has cost the Jets lots of points per season every single year. Historically, every point in the standings comes from about three goals of goal differential, meaning every six goals for equals one extra win, or six against an extra loss. When comparing Pavelec's save percentage to the league average in each season, the numbers aren't pretty.
His first season in Winnipeg was his best, and his .906 save percentage still cost the team 16 goals versus league average (.914), about five points in the standings. In the lockout-shortened 2013 season, his .905 cut nine goals from the team's numbers, costing them three points. Last year, his .901 cost them 22 goals, or about seven points. In the last two seasons, those additional points would have put the Jets into the playoffs. Cheveldayoff continues to stand by Pavelec.
And while most NHL teams have more than a few bad contracts, and many GMs have a penchant for extending players they shouldn't, the problem for the Jets is that they are trying to keep their player costs down. The Jets are currently 20th in the league in their cap obligations, with some $9.4 million to spend before they get to the ceiling, and are almost certainly not going to make any more non-minor transactions. They're a team that didn't use either of their two compliance buyouts — which would have let them get rid of someone without any sort of cap penalty — despite having a roster with several worthy candidates (Pavelec being Nos. 1-143).
What's amazing is that for all the Thrasher-blaming, this is a team that sticks steadfastly with its Atlantan roster. Out of the 33 players who suited up for the Jets last season, 14 also did so for the Thrashers in their final year of existence, and many are what the team would consider its “core” players. All but Byfuglien have been extended at least once since then.
Everything Cheveldayoff does is to move laterally at best. Nothing has been done to actually improve the team in three seasons. When players leave, they're replaced by equal or lesser parts, and when the parts are equal, they're also coming in at a premium price. Moreover, the list of trades made by Winnipeg that have brought actual established NHL players to the franchise isn't that impressive: Michael Frolik is the highlight, but beyond that it's Devin Setoguchi, Eric Tangradi, Jonas Gustavsson, and Eric Fehr. During that time, he shipped out Johnny Oduya and Alexei Ponikarovsky.
And for a team that has had no success in three years, you'd think there'd be an attempt to stock the cupboards with prospects and higher picks, but that's also not happening. Cheveldayoff hasn't acquired a single first-round pick, and he's shipped out as many seconds as he's brought in (that being just one). The best prospect he acquired in three seasons seems to be Kenndal McArdle, who is not good, and in fact no longer plays in North America.
This is also a club that can't spend money freely and still hope to make any. Perhaps the biggest impediment to financial success, and thus a stronger backing for the team's hopes of paying for a star player is the fact that their home rink seats only 15,004 fans. That's the smallest in the NHL by more than 1,000 seats, and while Jets fans have long insisted they'd still sell out if the building held 18,000, the reality is that it does not. No new arena is going to be built any time soon. So this is the team's lot.
More problematically, it seems incapable of spending money wisely, at least with this front office. But the bigger issue, maybe, is that it cannot spend money wisely not because of incompetence (though there remains plenty of that) but because of circumstance.
Simply put, no one wants to play in Winnipeg; the winters are long and bitterly cold. There's very little to do because it just isn't a big city. The local media is a pain in the ass. The team sucks. Any one of these is a good reason for a respectable free agent to seek employment opportunities elsewhere, and with Winnipeg, the confluence means they're going to struggle to attract people in the way that Edmonton has for decades, or Calgary does now. Those teams sell out the building most nights as well, and it makes no difference. Given a choice between the even-worse Panthers, or the Arizona Coyotes, and the Winnipeg Jets, the thinking is often, “Well, if I'm going to lose, I'd rather do it somewhere warm where there's not so much blame being thrown around.” These teams consequently pay premiums for even middling free agents.
There are so many reasons the Jets are bad, and will likely continue to be until they can develop an actual star on their own, that pointing to just one is reductionist and wrong. Management stinks, the wrong players are being invested in year after year, and no one wants to play there. All this has become apparent in the last six months or so, after that new-team smell finally wore off.
People in Winnipeg are only just now starting to realize the one thing on which these ongoing problems absolutely cannot be blamed is that the Jets used to play in Atlanta.