A compelling sidebar of this season of mediocrity — hovering around the .500 mark near the halfway point of the schedule suggests nothing but average — has been the reaction to Jets captain Andrew Ladd and his continuing contract drama.
The 30-year-old remains unsigned as the Jets move into the 2016 calendar. With every game that passes, it seems increasingly likely that Ladd will be moved for a draft pick or a prospect before the NHL trade deadline rolls around at the end of February.
An unrestricted free agent come July, Ladd was thought to be at the top of the to-do list for general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff last summer and into this season. For some reason, though, be it the inability of the team and the player to find common ground on dollars or term, or maybe some other reason that hasn't been leaked out of the negotiations yet, the two sides have yet to come together.
From a Jets perspective, the lack of urgency remains curious. Ladd has been a faithful soldier, a pillar in the community and a culture carrier that management and ownership has trumpeted since he arrived from Atlanta. For an organization that celebrates character and values, the idea of rings in the room (Ladd has two Stanley Cup wins on his resume), locking him up to a long-term deal seemed certain. Ladd would be the perfect example for a young roster moving forward, right?
But here we are, flying into the great unknown.
The contract situation has been a distraction, maybe not for the players on the ice, but for those who consume Jets hockey on a daily basis. And quite possibly for Ladd himself, who hasn't looked like the same player this season.
This is where things get interesting.
Yes, Ladd has struggled. Through 39 games, including the Jets' 4-1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks Sunday night, the 11-year veteran has 10 goals and 22 points. Last season at this time, Ladd was working on 14 goals and 31 points, on his way to a team-leading and career-high 62-point campaign.
Also interesting: where Ladd is trending in the polls. As this year has plodded along, the public sentiment towards the captain has cooled substantially. Criticism that a designated leader is not leading hard enough comes with the territory of being the captain, but as Ladd struggles on the ice, the voices of discontent become louder and louder.
Ladd takes a penalty in the offensive zone? Outrage.
Ladd fails to bury a chance in the slot? He's not worth the money.
Ladd doesn't fight someone after a teammate takes a big hit? He's a bad leader.
He's not a flashy player but the spotlight always burns hot for the captain. Part of the job.
And when details of Ladd's initial contract demands leaked out last month (six years, $41 million), it sent some into a hissy fit. This was not unexpected. That's what frustration over an inconsistent Jets season will do — millionaire players are not worth the millions they are asking for when things are going bad.
Someone has to take the heat.
Another interesting chapter in this season concerning Ladd, the Jets, and the contract negotiations has been the play of Blake Wheeler.
The Jets winger has jumped to the front of the leadership queue this season and is the popular choice to be the next captain should the club move on from Ladd.
It just so happens Wheeler is putting together an all-star-calibre season, sitting sixth in league scoring, and has already committed to the team long-term, at what appears to now be a very team-friendly contract ($5.6 million cap hit through the 2018-19 season).
Wheeler doesn't have the pedigree of Ladd, though.
Does that matter? Is that important? Can Wheeler carry the increased weight the C seems to put on a player? More unknowns.
Last summer, it was impossible to think that Ladd and the Jets would get to this point, with the captain still not under contract and the conversation about who would be a suitable replacement for his leadership letter.
Just like it was hard to imagine there would be a growing dissatisfaction with Ladd within the fan base. Just as it was hard to foresee a consistent performer like Ladd struggling to find consistency in his own game this season — in an important contract year.
The whole premise seems impossible. But here we are.
Are the Jets ready to move on from Ladd?