Hey, have you heard? The Jets are back! Well, sort of. A team named the Winnipeg Jets does exist for the first time in 15 years, but it's not the same team that existed back then... that team is still the Phoenix Coyotes, even if they've been ownerless for the past three seasons.
The new Jets are the former Atlanta Thrashers, as the NHL continues its evil strategy to place an expansion team in Atlanta only as a way to eventually move it to western Canada. As a Saskatoon resident, I can hardly wait for the next NHL expansion to the Georgia capital, because my town might just be a decade away from a franchise!
So the Jets stole a franchise because someone else stole theirs and they couldn't get it back. And your Montreal Canadiens are the first ever regular season opponent of the newly branded, walking air force billboards from the capital of Manitoba. The building is packed, scalpers are being hung outside the MTS Centre (or so I've been led to believe), and the economy of the city has gone from absolutely dreadful to positively adequate. NHL hockey is viable again in Winnipeg, with modern facilities (including those fancy corporate boxes and a better concession deal), the wealthiest owner in the league (heck, the wealthiest man in Canada), a salary cap and a Canadian dollar trading at about 50% higher than in 1996 vs. the American dollar.
Mark Chipman, the chairman of the ownership group, said in a CBC hour-long special on Friday that the one thing he wished he could do over from the days of running the IHL/AHL's Manitoba Moose was the first season. The Moose's first season was dreadful, as the team was led by former Canadiens coach Jean Perron and was a disaster. While Chipman wishes he could do it over again, it doesn't appear he's given the Jets much of a shot at being successful in their debut season, either. After the jump, we look at why the roster the Jets have assembled from the team formerly known as the Thrashers isn't likely to be very effective this year.
1. Trend of Rushing High Picks Continues
I understand the desire of small budget, terrible teams to promote teenagers to the NHL. Legitimately, because the team is already bad enough to finish in the bottom 5-10 of the NHL, these players are often good enough to make the team. Rather than acquire veterans through free agency (which can be a tough sell), the team puts that money into players on fixed entry level contracts and hopes for quick growth. The Thrashers did this quite often... and it led to them making the playoffs once in their history, a 2007 Southeast Division title which saw them swept by the New York Rangers (seriously, not even by a good team) in the opening round. In the years since that team had to be picked apart, the team has put their top pick from the Entry Draft into the NHL immediately every season. Zach Bogosian (3rd overall, 2008), Evander Kane (4th overall, 2009), Alexander Burmistrov (8th overall, 2010), and now Mark Schiefele (7th overall, 2011) all made their NHL debuts in the franchise's very next regular season game. This strategy hasn't really worked... Bogosian has had ups and downs and is now signed to a 2 year, $5m contract. He's half way to earning NHL free agency and the team is still not playoff ready. Kane's contract will come up this summer and will certainly cost the team even more money than Bogosian did.
Giving jobs to players that earn it in training camp is a fine strategy. But if an 18 or 19 year old is good enough to make your team every season, you're doing something wrong. And long term, it's not a very good strategy.
2. Organizational Depth Already Being Tested
The team is making its debut with four forwards already out of the lineup: Eric Fehr, Kenndal McArdle, former Canadien Ben Maxwell, and Aaron Gagnon. Only Fehr is a significant loss, but the others have NHL experience and are at the 'make or break' age in terms of establishing themselves as NHL players, and the Jets desperately need some of those players to emerge. Obviously, the team also tragically lost Rick Rypien this offseason, a player who was familiar with the city and the organization who could've been a fan favourite as well as helpful in the team's transition. The good news for the team is that they are healthy on D and in goal, which are their team's strong points. Still, looking at today's starting lineup, you can't help but wonder how many of those forwards would not be good enough to make the Canadiens... I'm thinking at least three.
3. Everyone is New At This
Kevin Cheveldayoff is a rookie GM. Claude Noel is a rookie head coach. The city has been absent from the league for a generation. Mark Chipman and David Thomson have never owned a NHL team before. They've all done their jobs at the AHL level, but the NHL is a new experience for all of them. And the players, as a group, have never played under the spotlight of a Canadian NHL city before. The awkwardness of being the only Eastern Conference team outside the Eastern Time Zone is also an unique challenge to overcome. The new-ness of the Jets will be welcomed by the fan base, who are about the only people that aren't totally green in this experience. It is going to be a special year, but it could also be a frustrating one for all involved. This team craves success but it will not be easy. And the mistakes of the past organization still loom large.
Jets season ticket holders were asked to take 3-5 year committments to the team. The organization was able to get those, and they must feel real good about that. It will take 3-5 years to make this team into a force, and that will only happen if they did in fact hire the right people for the job. The team is currently an Eastern Conference team, but is really being built to compete against future Western Conference opponents like Minnesota, Chicago, Edmonton and Calgary.
We're their first test. But there will be a lot bigger ones for the team beyond today. I wish them success in those future tests... but hope they stumble out of the gates today. Sorry, my fellow prairie city.