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.

No comments:

Post a Comment