Sometimes it’s just plain awful to be a fan.
We’re not talking about the occasional emotional bump and bruise, the kind fans get from a devastating last-second loss or a disastrous season-ending injury — or even when they watch their favorite team bow out in the conference finals, one round shy of a shot at the Stanley Cup. We mean years of suffering at the hands of a club that almost seems to delight in tormenting those who freely give to it their hearts, minds, time and money.
This is the first in our series on the 10 NHL franchises that take an ongoing toll on their fans, the teams that suggest that their devoted followers are either bottomless wells of hope or certified masochists — or perhaps just a touch crazy. Let us start with the Jets, who were more than warmly welcomed by hockey starved Winnipeggers in 2011, but are now starting to make the natives restless with their relentless wheel-spinning.
TEAM 9: Dallas Stars | 8: Columbus Blue Jackets | 7: Vancouver Canucks | 6: Florida Panthers
5. Edmonton Oilers | 4. Washington Capitals | 3. Buffalo Sabres | 2. New York Islanders
1. Toronto Maple Leafs
As coach Claude Noel aptly put it just days before the word former was added to his job description, the Jets are “consistently inconsistent.” Plagued by bad drafting, ineffectual management and a tolerance for mediocrity that was imported from Atlanta (where the Thrashers made all of one playoff appearance in 11 seasons) this franchise has built a legacy out of failing to rise to the occasion. It hasn’t much mattered who has been in charge, the Thrashers/Jets have shown little resolve over the years, with a can’t-do attitude prevailing whenever the going gets tough.
Most notorious moments
• Drafting Patrick Stefan No. 1 in 1999: Imagine where this franchise would be had it selected Daniel or Henrik Sedin (who went with the second and third picks, respectively) … or if then GM Dan Waddell had had the vision of the Canucks’ Brian Burke, who made a series of three trades with the Blackhawks, Lightning and Thrashers so that he could draft both of the vaunted Swedish twins.
• The Ilya Kovalchuk trade: Not that it worked out all that well for the Devils, either, but nearly four years later it’s still stunning to consider how poorly Waddell handled this situation. Ultimately, he dealt the greatest player in franchise history for a depth defenseman (Johnny Oduya), a small forward who quickly flamed out (Niclas Bergfors), a prospect who barely got a sniff of the NHL (Patrice Cormier) and two draft picks. To his credit, Waddell later packaged the picks to Chicago to acquire Dustin Byfuglien, but that still doesn’t move the needle anywhere near far enough.
• The Ondrej Pavelec contract: It’s not so much the money — $3.9 million is a bargain for a No. 1 goaltender. The problem is that Pavelec isn’t a No. 1 goaltender, and he has shown no signs of becoming one during the five-year duration of this painful deal.
• The lone playoff appearance: While based in Atlanta, the team made one postseason appearance, when they were swept in four games by the Rangers. The series included a 7-0 whupping in Game 3 after two one-goal defeats at home.
• The March meltdown: This is one of the rare teams in NHL history that had a season essentially end while it was in first place. A 16-12-2 record had the Jets atop the Southeast Division on the morning of Mar. 20, 2013, but back-to-back home losses to the Capitals — 4-0 that night and 6-1 the following evening– exposed them for the frauds they were. Winnipeg hung around for a while, but never really recovered, finishing ninth in the East, four points behind the Islanders, after losing their last two games of the seasson.
As of this writing, the Jets are 12th in the Western Conference, 10 points out of a wild card spot. There’s always the hope that a new coach can get them back in the mix before it’s too late, but the chances of that actually happening are slim: just 2.9 percent, according to Sportsclubstats.com.
In the system
The organization’s two best prospects, center Mark Schiefele and defenseman Jacob Trouba, are both in Winnipeg and playing well, but then again, as top-10 selections, they should be. The Jets/Thrashers have usually done well with high picks in the first round (Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian, Bryan Little), but what about in the later rounds? Anyone with a Hockey News draft guide could have done as well, or better. Of the 24 players the franchise drafted in the second round or later from 2006 through ’10, just eight have appeared in the NHL, playing a total of 125 games. Not one has become an NHL regular.
Still, there is a perception that the team’s system has improved since Kevin Cheveldayoff took over as GM when the team moved to Winnipeg. Hockey Prospectus ranked the Jets’ farm system 29th in the NHL during the summer of 2011, but jumped it up to 12th in ’13, thanks primarily to Chevy’s picks. Josh Morrissey (selected at No. 13 in 2013) could be a high-scoring, second-pair defenseman. Center Nic Petan (No. 43 in ’13) made a good impression with Team Canada at the recent World Juniors and looks like a possible second liner, where he could skate between Adam Lowry (No. 66 in ’11) and Jimmy Lodge (No. 84 in ’13).
Better Days Ahead?
With a decent group of kids on deck and the highly regarded Paul Maurice now behind the bench, there is hope for Jets fans. Maurice has plenty of fires to put out, starting with coaxing a consistent level of effort out of his team and fixing a low-wattage power play, but with no real pressure to turn things around this season he can focus on building a solid base for 2014-15. And with a solid crop of goaltenders set to hit the free agent market, there will be a chance for Cheveldayoff to address his most pressing need.
But the real challenge for both men is to create a new culture. It’s not the brutal Winnipeg winter that scares off the free agents who could help this organization take the next step. It’s the absence of accountability, the acceptance of mediocrity. Changing that perception might require a significant deal (or two) to shake up the room, but the opportunity is there and, with Maurice on hand to show them the way, the time is now.
Are you a Jets fan? Got a tale to tell? Feel free to share in the comments section below.