WINNIPEG – The once immaculate ice turned a pond within minutes; colourful slush later scraped up by bobcats, with the unmistakable smell of diesel fuel filling the concourse instead of popcorn, nachos and hot dogs.
It’s everyone’s least favourite day of the hockey season – the first one with no hockey at all.
The Winnipeg Jets had their annual exit meetings on Monday, and it began bright and early at MTS Centre, where crews quickly transformed a beautiful ice rink into a quiet, concrete jungle.
After missing the cut with a 35-39-8 record, the Jets had already shifted gears, though, focusing on the work that needs to be done to make the team competitive again five months from now.
“There would be a spectrum of conversations that happened today,” said Head Coach Paul Maurice, who, along with General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, met with each player individually before going their separate ways.
“There were guys that, statistically, there were parts of their game they could be proud of. That was a theme with a number of them. For some of the … younger players, I have the expectation that they will take that next step, that jump in their game. For some of them, that’s not something you can do over five months, but there would be a number of those younger players that got the message, ‘This is where I see you at your best, and we need you to get there far sooner than you’re comfortable getting there.’”
The Jets were one of the youngest teams in the NHL this season with average age of 26.372. Only the Buffalo Sabres (26.038), Carolina Hurricanes (26.035) and Edmonton Oilers (25.979) were younger.
With the addition of 2015 first-round pick Kyle Connor, who signed a three-year entry-level contract earlier in the day, it’s possible – perhaps even likely – the Jets will be even younger next year. Asked whether or not that concerns him after missing the playoffs in the stiff Central Division, Maurice, firm in his delivery, said he has no qualms about inserting young talent, so long as they’re the “best guys we have.”
“If they’re all young guys, they’re all young guys. … If that means in the Central Division that you’ve got to take a knock or two, I think that’s the best thing for this organization.
“The best players should be on our team, whether they’re 19, 21 or 32.”
There’s also the possibility of adding players via trade or free agency. Cheveldayoff said that is an avenue the Jets will explore this summer, but in a responsible manner in line their long-term strategy.
“We haven’t changed our thought process; we have not deviated from our plan,” he said.
That plan – the ‘draft and develop’ model, as it is commonly referred – has brought along players like Mark Scheifele, who tallied 29 goals and 61 points in just his third NHL season, including 33 (17G, 16A) in the final 26 games.
“These guys take time to develop. … But you’re starting to see the fruits of some of those players that we’ve drafted,” Cheveldayoff said.
“It’s [about] building that group, building that core, together.”
With the injury to Bryan Little, Scheifele finished the year on the top line with Blake Wheeler and Nikolaj Ehlers, who himself had a fine campaign, recording 15 goals and 38 points as a rookie.
The Jets may have made the playoffs last season, but they left without winning a game. Change was necessary, Cheveldayoff says, because the goal isn’t to squeak in and make a brief appearance, but to contend, and to do so on a regular basis moving forward.
In order to do that, guys had to be given a chance; and by properly cultivating that talent, Cheveldayoff believes the team is closer to its goal now than it was back in October.
“You talk about the Detroit Red Wings or the Chicago Blackhawks model now, but until they established the core, and the competition amongst the rest of the organization for a scarce number of jobs – until you have that, you really don’t have competition,” he said.
“The Kyle Connors of the world, now that adds to the competition.
“The guys in the room today that were given 10, 15 games down the stretch, ‘Congratulations, you got some experience.’ But guess what? The competition now is just that much more heated. … There’s not one player that left the meeting today without an understanding of what Paul Maurice’s expectations are of them moving forward, and of what our organizational expectations are for them moving forward. The last thing you ask each and every one of them: ‘Are we all clear?’ You get the answers.”
The search is on for Winnipeg’s next captain.
After the departure of Andrew Ladd – the only captain ever to serve in the 2.0 era – the Jets played the final quarter of the season with three alternates, but are expected to sew up the captaincy at some point this off-season.
While there are some obvious candidates – Wheeler and Scheifele among them – there’s plenty to consider when appointing a leader in a small-market Canadian city.
It’s not a decision – or a position – the organization takes lightly.
“We’ve got some good candidates here,” Maurice acknowledged. “It’s not always just about what’s best for the team. Sometimes it’s what’s best for the man, and you have to take that into account, too. … There’s a bigger weight that gets put on with that ‘C’ and you don’t want personalities changing because of it. The men that we’re talking about being the captain of the team, they need to know what’s expected of them, not only on a daily basis, but also things they maybe haven’t thought of. They need to be comfortable with all that’s asked of them and we’ll take our time to go through all that with them, and then make a decision.”
Wheeler has worn the alternate captain’s ‘A’ for a couple of years now, is coming off a career-high 78 points (26G, 52A), and was praised daily by the head coach for his leadership and one-of-a-kind work ethic late in the season when, in his words, things “could have fallen off the rails pretty quick.”
Instead, the Jets rattled off four straight wins and Wheeler, who turns 30 in August, finished the year on a career-high 11-game point streak, putting up eight and 15 points in the final three weeks.
“Obviously everyone wants to wear the ‘C’,” Wheeler said. “There’s a lot of pride that comes with that. Given the opportunity I would respect it and wear it with pride. That being said, there’s going to be a lot of conversations had internally to try and find out who the best fit is for the organization.”
– Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com