Judging the Jets -- 100 games after their return to Winnipeg

By: Adam Wazny | Monday, February 25

Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff must decide whether to hang onto a squad that is 45-44-11 since returning to Winnipeg or make some major changes. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

Since NHL hockey landed back in Winnipeg, the party line from the Jets revolved around evaluation and patience.

It was going to take some time to grade the pieces of the Atlanta Thrashers and determine if they were pieces worth keeping. Playoffs are always the yearly goal, the Jets insisted, but if that didn't come to pass then at least the organization was building for the future. Sounds like a plan.

In a related story, Sunday's 4-2 win over the New Jersey Devils marked the 100th game of the Jets re-boot in the Manitoba capital. One hundred games, one figures, is a pretty good sample size for general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to formulate conclusions on players and from that, shed some light on what his strategy is regarding the current Jets configuration.

Time flies when you're having fun, but have we learned anything about what the Jets have learned regarding this inherited Thrashers roster?

First off, forget the idea of a Jets rebuild. This never was the case. One can't rebuild something that hasn't been broken down yet, and Cheveldayoff has been reluctant to make any moves to the core group of youngsters they assumed from Atlanta. In fact, the exact opposite of blowing things up has occurred.

Lengthy contract extensions were handed out to Evander Kane, Andrew Ladd, Tobias Enstrom, and Ondrej Pavelec. Add those deals to Dustin Byfuglien's situation -- he's under contract for another three seasons -- and a seemingly solid young core is in place (all are 28-years-old or younger). Opinions differ as to how shrewd those signings were -- some would argue the Pavelec (five years, $19.5-million) and Enstrom (five years, $28.75-million) deals as curious; others applaud the Kane (six years, $31.5-million) and Ladd (five years, $22-million) extensions as solid investments -- but Cheveldayoff's intent was crystal clear: these guys are worth keeping around, at least in the short-term.

Call it buying a little more time in the evaluation process.

Here's where it gets interesting: there are other members of the Jets young core and decisions on those players are pending. Zach Bogosian (22 years old), Bryan Little (25), Blake Wheeler (26) and Alexander Burmistrov (21) are all set to be restricted free agents at season's end. All have shown flashes of a high ceiling and all are likely to see offers to remain in Winnipeg before the summer arrives.

So it's possible the young core could be retained after two seasons of evaluation, with hope for future successes carried on the backs of those nine players. Which brings us to this: Based on what the Jets have shown through 100 games, does it make sense for Cheveldayoff to keep building off this group after this year?

The Jets are 45-44-11 since returning to Winnipeg. Barely treading water is hardly a reason to keep the status quo, and despite the recent good play on the road (the club is 3-1 on a season-long five-game road trip), it's foolish to think the team has turned any corner until they prove they can avoid the lengthy slumps -- and the connecting calls for a culture change or a chemistry stir -- that regularly follow a spell of competitive efforts.

One hundred games has been more than enough time to determine if certain young, core players are part of the problem or part of the solution. No doubt Cheveldayoff has made some determinations. Where it gets fuzzy is whether this collective group is a foundation worth building a successful NHL program on.

So it turns out it's not the last 100 games that matter. It's the next 30 -- the rest of this shortened season -- that are the ones of great importance for the Jets GM. Look, individual player growth is great but there has to be some progress at the team level, as well, and we just haven't seen any hints of that yet.

To put it another way: Holding onto a young core of NHL players with multiple seasons under their collective belts looks great on paper but if that young core doesn't show signs of improving as a group on the ice, then what's the point of keeping them together?

Opinion

Adam Wazny is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer who has covered sports in the city for over a decade. He has worked as a reporter for both the Winnipeg Free Press and the Winnipeg Sun, and now spends most of his time checking his Twitter. Did someone say Twitter? Find him here: @wazoowazny.

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