By Allan Muir
Winnipeg Jets coach Claude Noel offered an interesting take on leadership the other night.
“It’s a funny thing,” he said. “Everyone has some portion of leadership in them. The question is, is anybody following you? They follow Andrew.”
Andrew, of course, being Andrew Ladd, the wrecking ball on skates who has carried Noel’s Jets much of this season, but never more obviously than over this final, desperate charge for the playoffs.
He’s set the tone down the stretch with his grim determination and timely scoring, willing Winnipeg to four straight wins that have moved the Jets into a virtual tie with the Rangers for the final playoff spot in the East.
Ladd, a 6′-3″, 205-pound winger who plays much bigger than that, was at his beastly best in a 4-3 win over Tampa Bay on Tuesday night, scoring the opening goal, assisting on the second, and tallying the third before clinching the desperately needed extra point with a beauty in the shootout.
“He really took charge and led the way,” said teammate Evander Kane. “He couldn’t have put it on display any better. [He's] showing the guys he’s here to win.”
At this point, there aren’t many better at strapping on the yoke and leading the way than Ladd, who plays the sort of all-terrain game that commands respect. His name may not pop up immediately when the game’s great captains are discussed, but when it comes to the intangibles — his high compete level, his ability to rise to the moment and to inspire the guys in the room — Ladd is as every bit as effective as more heralded lettermen like Jonathan Toews and Sidney Crosby.
Of course, that recognition won’t come as long as the Jets are a playoff also-ran. Leaders rarely get the acclaim they deserve until they actually get their team where it wants to go. For Winnipeg, that starts with a playoff berth that would be the franchise’s first since 2007.
Odds are it won’t happen this season. The Jets have just five games remaining, one fewer than the Rangers. They probably need to win four of them, starting Thursday night when they host the Hurricanes.
After that, they host the Islanders, then go on the road to face the Sabres and Capitals before returning home for what they hope will be a meaningful game against the Canadiens.
With three of their opponents ahead of them in the East standings, the road looks pretty steep.
But Ladd, who has played himself into the discussion for Team Canada in Sochi, shouldn’t be underestimated. If he can’t find a way with his touch, he’ll grit his teeth, lower his shoulder and clear the path.
That’s the thing with great leaders. They find a way.