Saturday, June 10, 2023

Winnipeg Jets Ready to Explode

Winnipeg Jets logo
The fuse was lit in the Winnipeg Jets organization before the start of the 2022-23 season when head coach Rick Bowness stripped Blake Wheeler of the team’s captaincy. Wheeler’s post-castration reaction made it clear, if not in words then in tone and the barely concealed contempt that came off him in waves: this would not soon be forgotten. But the words, too, were important. Parse them and you find some odd contradictions.

The  Jets had an up and down season, culminating in a late-season collapse that has become a tradition for the team. They snuck into the playoffs, had one good game in their series against the Vegas Golden Knights, and then promptly curled into the fetal position and begged to be kicked into submission. Vegas obliged.

When Bowness ripped into the team after they were eliminated by the Knights, Wheeler had his opening. At the Jets’ end-of-year media availability, Wheeler’s smugness was palpable. He lectured Bowness on etiquette and gave fans and reporters a lesson in the gleeful serving of cold dishes. In years gone by, it would have been called insubordination. Some of Wheeler’s millionaire team-mates suggested that their tender sensibilities had also been offended by Bowness’s blunt comments about their lack of effort in their first-round series against the Knights. And maybe they truly did believe what they were saying.

But after years of rumours and odd incidents, it’s more likely that one or more individuals in the locker room are pushing buttons and setting the tone. And in any situation in which a core group of manipulators operates, someone can always be identified as the leader. It’s clear that other Jets players understand the importance of the lead ape’s words and actions, demonstrated by the fact they lined up and pointed to the supposed grievance that Bowness dared to share his feelings after the Jets were eliminated. And it was notable that the most recent player to arrive on the Jets’ roster chose not to ape the lead ape.

The sudden departure of Dustin Byfuglien in 2019, the resignation of Paul Maurice in December, 2021, and Pierre-Luc Dubois’s recent request to be traded by the Jets can all be explained away by other factors. But the behind-the-scenes weirdness probably comes under the ‘it makes it easier to leave’ category. And a player has to feel remarkably comfortable in his hold over the team to be able to tell a group of reporters to ‘fuck off,’ as Wheeler did at the conclusion of the Jets’ 2018-19 season.

And so we come to that topic which always accompanies any discussion of the Jets, especially when signings and trades are the focus. Yes, we get it. Winnipeg may not be the most glamorous city on the NHL circuit. Vicious winters, mosquitoes in the summer, and nothing for hundreds of miles in any direction are part of the reality. (And I grew up in Winnipeg, so I’ve got immunity to rip the place while sprinkling in the requisite bits of whimsical nostalgia.) But I have the sense that those unpleasant aspects of life in Winnipeg have been weaponized by some current players. As if to say, ‘We’ve deigned to come and play here, therefore we have granted ourselves a licence to manipulate, sulk, run people out of town and pitch a gutless effort or two whenever the mood strikes. And you better not call us on it!’

Enough of this garbage. Connor Hellebuyck clearly wants out. Get the biggest haul you can for him, knowing full well any trade partner has the leverage. Wheeler will be more difficult to unload. He’ll be 37 before the start of next season and carries a sizeable cap hit. Get creative and do whatever it takes. Clear out the rest of the petulant dead weight and get on with it. This doesn’t have to be, and almost certainly won’t be, the beginning of a rebuild. But big changes are coming.

The Columbus Blue Jackets are creating a template for small-market teams. Bring in people who want to play, regardless of their baggage or even because of it. Another ingredient the Jets might want to add to the mix: get some vicious players who are willing to leave everything on the ice and brutalize opponents. Get angry about the sneering contempt from other fan-bases and the legion of players who would never play in Winnipeg. Bowness seems like the right coach, at least in the short term, to lead such a team into battle. He rightfully doesn’t give a damn about coddling overpaid millionaires. The perennial disappointment in Winnipeg has to end. Start the garbage removal, hoist the black flag, and give Jets fans something to cheer about.

Thursday, June 8, 2023

The Return of Mike Babcock

Mike Babcock is set to be hired as the new head coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets on July 1, 2023. His four years in well-paid exile marks one of the most unique episodes in recent NHL history.

When the Leafs under President Brendan Shanahan and GM Lou Lamoriello hired Babcock in May, 2015, they hailed their new coach as one of the greatest ever in the NHL. And they certainly paid him like they meant it. He’s still the league’s highest paid coach ever at an AAV of $8 million per season. His contract runs out on June 30, 2023, the day before the Blue Jackets will likely announce his hiring as their new bench boss.

When the Leafs handed Kyle Dubas the GM’s reins in 2018, it was only a matter of time before Babcock was fired. In November 2019, with the Leafs struggling in the first half of the season, the axe came down. And then a mass pile-on began, the likes of which has never been seen in the NHL. As I discussed in an earlier post, Mitch Marner and his ‘entourage’ wanted to damage Babcock as much as possible as he was on his way out the door. Marner had to have sought permission from Dubas before going public, and no doubt the license was granted.

Babcock did not deny the alleged wrong-doing, though he quibbled with the details. He read the room, and the zeitgeist, very well. Societal sentiments at the time regarding all sorts of bad behaviour and wronged individuals were at a fever pitch. If you ransacked the pasts of numerous NHL coaches, you would likely find similar conduct or worse. But everything would have to line up perfectly as it did with Babcock for a similar spectacle to ever happen again.

The Toronto hockey media herd is like no other: larger, more desperate for access, and more willing to exchange positive coverage for leaks and other special treatment. The Leafs really need to do nothing to keep the herd in check. The herd monitors itself, engages in self-censorship and gleefully attacks the rare herd member who doesn't follow the unwritten rules. When the herd was granted the license to go after Babcock for his alleged sins, they dutifully swarmed into action. They did Marner and Dubas’s bidding and all but tarred and feathered Babcock on his way out of town.

So the moment in time was perfect, the media was on board, and a handful of grudge-holders from Babcock’s past stepped up to play their parts. I have no doubt former players coached by Babcock feel their gripes are legitimate. But Babcock has no chance of ever receiving a fair hearing regarding their claims. At least one of the aggrieved individuals bemoans the fact that he simply has no choice but to embrace the recognition on offer every time Babcock is in the headlines. The point is, all these factors helped create a situation ripe for the zero-nuance, mob mentality social-media spectacle that played out after Babcock was fired by the Leafs.

Argue about the horror of ‘the list’ all you want. But it’s hard to deny that Babcock could have played his post-Toronto hand any better than he did. He did some analysis on TV, volunteered with the University of Saskatchewan’s men’s hockey program, and mostly enjoyed life. And for the most part he kept his mouth shut. The $20 million-dollar plus salary the Leafs paid him for not coaching for the last 4 years of his contract likely helped. He’ll be paid every last penny of the contract, which finishes on June 30 of this year.

The Dubas media sycophants have mostly stuck to their guns about Babcock. Maybe some nuance has been introduced with the passage of time and because the Leafs’ core four (John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander) have achieved nothing in the post-season since Babcock’s departure. Gutless, overpaid and coddled into emotionless, dead-eyed, post-elimination delusion, the core four’s annual disappearing act is the main reason for the Leafs’ playoff failures since Babcock was fired. But did you see the effort by Marner and Nylander in the Leafs’ final game of the 2022-23 season as they tried to achieve those personal milestones they always claim are so meaningless? Incredible!

Dubas’s cack-handed public machinations in trying to squeeze more money and power out of MLSE may have caused some people to reconsider the entire Babcock saga. Perhaps Dubas’s bizarre final media availability as the Leafs’ GM forced Shanahan to rethink how the Babcock firing was handled and confirmed some suspicions he had about Dubas. Who knows? Maybe it was even front of mind when he gave Dubas the Luca Brasi treatment.

Regardless, it’s not hard to believe Babcock was right all along in his handling of the Leafs’ young stars. But one thing is for certain, the Blue Jackets will be a bigger draw in the coming NHL season, especially when they play Toronto or Pittsburgh. Many fans and hacks will want to cast Babcock as a villain. He’ll joust with reporters, answer questions about Marner and Dubas, and pontificate on whether he’s changed as a coach. And I have no doubt he’ll enjoy every minute of it.