I have been a diehard Jets fan from day one. There was a point when just having a team was the coolest thing ever. That first year, even though there was plenty of losing attached to it, was incredibly fun.
There was entertainment value with the Jets having one of the best forwards in the league at the time in Blake Wheeler, and one of the best defencemen in the league, one of the most entertaining players in the league’s history in Dustin Byfuglien, and some real good core players in Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little, and Toby Enstrom to name a few.
They had just drafted Mark Scheifele who would become a cornerstone centreman for a long time, and that summer they drafted future top pair stud defenceman Jacob Trouba.
The hockey wasn’t always the prettiest, but as a fan, there was hope.
Three years into the second go round for the NHL in Winnipeg, management decided that the results they were getting weren’t quite good enough, so they fired Claude Noel and replaced him with veteran NHL coach Paul Maurice.
The early returns were pretty good. In his first full season, after Kevin Cheveldayoff made one of the best value offseason signings of the past decade by signing Mathieu Perreault for three years at $3M per season, Maurice coached the Jets to their first playoff berth, and a 10th best expected goal differential (as per MoneyPuck). They were consistently solid. Sadly they were not the strongest of finishing teams, and they had some weak goaltending. None of that is on coaching.
General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, a year after having Nikolaj Ehlers fall right into his lap, drafted talented sniper Kyle Connor. After a year with a young team and some growing pains after trading Andrew Ladd, he drafted Finnish star Patrik Laine second overall.
Suddenly, they had Scheifele, Wheeler, and Byfuglien, who were star players and among the best trios of players in the NHL at the time, as well as Mathieu Perreault, who was one of the best play drivers in the NHL, and another future star in Nikolaj Ehlers, and they were on the cusp of adding Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine. This team was going to be one of the scariest teams in the NHL, and it was inevitable.
The lineup decisions were not always the most ideal from Paul Maurice, but it didn’t matter once the 2017-18 Jets were assembled.
They took a month or so to get going, but when they did, it was pure dominance.
They traded for Paul Stastny at the trade deadline, and at that point their lineup was just unfair.
Unfortunately, it was the very last game of that dominant season that would foreshadow the years to come. The Jets benched two very good players in Toby Enstrom and Andrew Copp in what would have been Enstrom’s last game as a Jet. He was part of one of the best defence pairings in the NHL with Dustin Byfuglien, but Paul Maurice decided that an ice cold Dmitry Kulikov was a better option. Andrew Copp was one of their best defensive forwards, and a better option than any of Armia, Tanev, or Roslovic at the time, but they decided to bench him.
Fortunately, there was still hope. This team was not a lost cause, and most people would have them as one of the strongest Stanley Cup contenders in the NHL the next season.
The 2018 team that lost in the Western Conference Final to Vegas was a relatively young team. Two of their most important players, Wheeler and Byfuglien, however, were aging. It was time for Nikolaj Ehlers, Patrik Laine, and Jacob Trouba to join Mark Scheifele as the main drivers of this team going forward.
The 2018-19 season should have been the takeover season for this young core. While Dustin Byfuglien was still an outstanding defenceman, Blake Wheeler was clearly not the same player anymore.
It had also been apparent that Little and Laine were not good fits together. Each player was better when they didn’t play together. Yet Paul Maurice rolled them out together game after game. It resulted in Patrik Laine’s worst season as an NHL player up until that point.
The trio of Connor-Scheifele-Wheeler, which worked so well in the previous season, began to struggle, and yet Maurice thought rolling them out for nearly the whole season as their top line, despite getting outchanced and outscored, was a good idea.
Nikolaj Ehlers, despite some very poor shooting luck and a down year in points, which fooled some people including the coach, began trending towards being Winnipeg’s best player, and yet he never got (and still hasn’t gotten) the ice time to match the impact he had on the ice.
All of this was happening while the coach, after getting goalied by the Golden Knights the previous year, and not having a particularly good goaltending performance of their own, decided that they needed to go to a slower, more conservative playing style.
He was flat out fooled by a high-variance stat called save percentage, and in doing so took away from a lot of the offence that his team had (and still has) the talent to generate.
They quit using the middle of the ice on breakouts. Everything became either a chip off the glass or a jam up the boards unless Dustin Byfuglien was out there.
The hockey became boring, and the atmosphere in BellMTS Place went from exciting to dull.
That trade deadline, the Jets traded for another second line centre in Kevin Hayes, and despite having a good showing, he ended up on the fourth line in favour of Bryan Little, and somehow despite it not working for 70 or so games that it was tried, Ehlers-Little-Laine was the line Maurice went back to.
The Jets played well enough but lost in six games to a good St. Louis team in the playoffs, and from there the excuses just piled on top of each other.
This was the summer Jacob Trouba was finally traded. They ended up getting their first round pick back as well as Neal Pionk, who had poor NHL results to that point, but also just 101 NHL games under his belt. He turned out to be a good player for the Jets, and with the draft pick, they made an outstanding selection at 20th overall getting a near surefire top 4 defenceman. So while not necessarily the best trade, the result turned out very good.
But unfortunately, Buff had decided to call it quits that fall. And so that was a huge blow to the team. But Maurice made it an even bigger blow by deciding to FOCUS on defending when they had a defence corps with Luca Sbisa, Anthony Bitetto, Nathan Beaulieu, and Tucker Poolman taking regular shifts. This is where decision making went from bad to asinine.
The Jets still had the likes of Scheifele, Ehlers, Laine, and Connor upfront, but could not generate any offence at all, because of a focus on defending. They often kept a high forward in the offensive zone, and would have five guys retreat as far back as possible allowing easy possession for the other team despite an inability to either defend, or get pucks out of the zone.
If they had played a game where they were aggressive attacking the puck at both blue lines (i.e. holding the line and denying zone entries), yes they would have given up more rush chances, but they likely would have given up less danger overall, and it’s guaranteed they would have scored a ton more.
Instead, the Jets finished dead last in expected goal differential by every public model and relied on an unbelievable season from Connor Hellebuyck where he won the Vezina trophy as the league’s best goalie with 24.2 goals saved above expected (as per MoneyPuck). They still finished in the bottom half of the league in points percentage with the best goaltending in the NHL.
This season it was more of the same. They added Dylan DeMelo at last year’s trade deadline and signed him to a four year extension, which can account for much of the team’s improvement defensively. They added Paul Stastny again for next to nothing, and seemed primed to add a good young defenceman in Ville Heinola into the lineup.
He may not have been the difference right away, but some seasoning was important for him going forward. Except Maurice decided Derek Forbort and Nathan Beaulieu were going to help this team win instead. Which of course they didn’t. They were terrible. Logan Stanley, who had an okay showing, but had been clearly passed by Heinola in previous training camps, got the nod ahead of him.
Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis became regulars meanwhile Jansen Harkins, Kristian Vesalainen, and David Gustafsson all appeared ready for NHL action.
Paul Maurice also still decided for most of the year that Tucker Poolman was a better option ahead of DeMelo.
Nikolaj Ehlers began to prove to everybody that he is the best skater on the team and one of the best wingers in the NHL, but the coach still played him like an average second liner.
As the season went along, they decided to continue focusing on defending, even with their talented offensive players.
As a result, their shot metrics were once again near the bottom of the league, but they were propelled to an average record in a shortened season where Connor Hellebuyck once again (as per MoneyPuck) was the best goalie in the league with 19.3 goals saved above expected.
Having the best goalie in the league is a great thing. But the Jets are completely squandering the opportunity they have with him by keeping this coach employed.
It’s been the same results for two and a half seasons, and after Connor Hellebuyck completely stole all but one game in a sweep of the Oilers, the Jets got swept by the less talented Montreal Canadiens in the most lopsided series ever recorded in terms of expected goal share (by Evolving Hockey’s model), and the organization has seemingly decided that this mediocrity is acceptable.
I, along with so many others, simply cannot accept this complacency as a fan. True North Sports and Entertainment has looked at this, they’ve seen how much the fans hate how their team plays, and they’ve seemingly decided to take a giant piss on all of us.
They want Paul Maurice around because the players like playing for him, not because they get results from his coaching.
Or maybe they actually think he’s doing a good job?
Put it this way, one of two things is true. Either the organization likes the job Maurice is doing and thinks elite goaltending can somehow be attributed to his coaching, or they don’t honestly care about winning, and therefore don’t care about the fans.
One of these two things is true, and either one of them causes me to lose hope for this team going forward.
Connor Hellebuyck has already played almost as well as humanly possible in net. Asking him to do more is unrealistic.
Somehow, this mediocrity, despite having exactly one, maybe two satisfying seasons from the coaching staff if we look at 2014-15, has turned into Paul Maurice being the second longest tenured coach in the NHL.
As a sports fan, I’ve felt all kinds of emotions, including joy, sadness, anger, excitement, shock. Never before until this week have I felt hopelessness as a sports fan.
This coach has said he thinks this team is coming into its prime. Its best players are all in or at the back end of their primes, and this team can’t even finish in the top 20 in expected goal share.
We all know what’s going to happen. The coach is going to demand we sign some sub-replacement level veterans because he can’t trust the young guys, and the team is going to have to try relying on Hellebuyck again for any success.
It’s a recipe we know doesn’t work, but it’s what happens year after year with this staff. Why anyone would think it’s going to turn out differently than that next year? I have no idea.
At the end of the day, seven full years without getting desired results and this organization still rolls along with this head coach and his track record of boneheaded decisions like they’re just happy to be here.
How many years of this kind of play is acceptable to this organization? 8? 12? 20? It’s even worse when you look at the fact that this franchise was gifted Nikolaj Ehlers, Patrik Laine, and Connor Hellebuyck, and have completely botched their opportunity.
Oh, and I somehow wrote all this without even mentioning Charlie Huddy has been an assistant coach for EVERY GAME this franchise has played in Winnipeg.
I, along with so many fans, will watch the games next year with more apathy than ever knowing what the final result of the season is likely to be.