No doubt you've heard the following about the Winnipeg Jets:
They are a young team, loaded with bright young prospects, and the future is bright—or something along those lines. Any combination of the words 'young,' 'prospects,' future,' and 'bright' will suffice in any conversation about the local hockey squad.
And all of the above is true.
The Jets currently have seven roster players who are under 23-years-old. Three of those players (Jacob Trouba, Mark Scheifele and Adam Lowry—all 22) are wrapping up their third year of pro hockey service, while others—Joel Armia, Andrew Copp, Nikolaj Ehlers and Marko Dano (who joined the roster last week)—are at various stages but continue to get their feet wet.
Looks good. The future. Youth. Bright. Prospects.
What doesn't sit well, or what certainly has been swept under the rug in this lost season, is this idea that an NHL team mixing in young players must do so at the expense of putting a winning—or at the very least, competitive—product on the ice.
The Jets dropped a 4-3 overtime decision to the New York Islanders at MTS Centre Thursday night. Winnipeg is now 26-32-5 on the year, good for 57 points, and continue to settle near the bottom of the Western Conference standings.
Consider the other clubs around the league. What you notice, if you look close enough, is how some teams above the playoff line have worked in young players while continuing to work their record well above the .500 mark.
The Dallas Stars also have five players 23 and under. The Stars are third overall in the league. The first-place Washington Capitals have three players 23 and under; their record is even more impressive when you consider they have four players who are 24-years-old.
Setting the bar a bit high there? OK, take a look at Nashville…
The wild card Predators, who are 19 points ahead of the Jets in the Central Division, have five players 23-year-old and under. And if you think those players are just limited-ice guys on the third and fourth lines, think again. Ryan Johansen, 23, is their No. 1 centre. Filip Forsberg, 21, has 26 goals.
Winnipeg isn't the only club using young players in front-line roles. There's no league rule that says a club can't be successful and break in some young players along the way. So why has it been a struggle in Winnipeg?
While Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has done a very nice job with his high draft picks, he simply hasn't done enough to fill out the current roster. This has been a failing of his since the GST line was a thing. It's a process, you say? Teams at the other end of the standings seem to be able to draft and develop, too.
And as NHL service to open NHL careers has worked out for Scheifele and Trouba, the jury is still out on the process for Copp. An opportunity to develop his overall game through increased minutes and power play time is there for him in the AHL, but the club has other ideas.
Are Armia and Dano NHL players, or are they just getting an opportunity because the season has been toast for weeks now? Once upon a time, the Atlanta Thrashers management was ridiculed in these for rushing young players into the lineup before they were ready. Discuss among yourselves.
Yes, Cheveldayoff decided to gamble on his young players taking the place of established veterans, and that the turbulence would be minimal. The modest goal of qualifying for the playoffs was the stated goal out of training camp—just like it is every year.
Now watch out for revisionist history: this 'organizational reset' or 'roster restructuring' (don't use the 're-build'—that's taboo) was not the expectation heading into the year. The organization was trying to win.
Why sign a guy like Drew Stafford at over $4 million per year when they expected to take a step back? Wouldn't a younger, cheaper option be better served in that spot if the plan for this year was to simply pass out experience to the youngsters, win-loss record be dammed?
The Jets didn't expect to take a step back, or at least not one as far back as they did, and now that the season has been reduced to nothing more than just garbage time, the focus is squarely on the kids.
It's not just about development and the future, it's also a distraction from the present.