Playoffs or not, does the Winnipeg Jets player core need changing?

Winnipeg Jets (Mandatory Credit: James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports)
Winnipeg Jets (Mandatory Credit: James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports) /

Scott Billick of the “Winnipeg Sun” recently published a great article transcribing Coach Rick Bowness’ rather guised exchange with the media. The subtext of the conversation was his underlying incredulity for the need to continually keep his players properly motivated. The takeaway was that despite the Winnipeg Jets’ precarious playoff hopes, some players required external goading from the coaching staff to play their best hockey.

Murat Ates of “The Athletic” also recently wrote an excellent article challenging the Jets’ highest-paid players to ‘step up’ at this crucial juncture in the season. Murat took painstaking efforts to refrain from questioning the character of the protagonists in question – a position that should be respected and lauded.

I agree that the high road is almost always the preferred best path, but for many Winnipeg Jets fans, all of this is a bit difficult to swallow. At the risk of soliciting unearned martyrdom, Jets fans, and fans of any professional team spend consequential time, energy and capital following their favorite teams. When a team seems unmotivated, or disengaged – fans get upset.

The Winnipeg Jets might need some changes to their player core

Objectively, is rooting for grown men playing a game a purposely futile and outmoded activity? Probably, but millions do it because it provides a sense of community, excitement, and entertainment. Professional athletes (most of them anyway) are well compensated, and professional criticism – even of their character – is sometimes warranted.

Nobody outside of the Jets locker room can definitely gauge an individual player’s contributions as they relate to team building, and motivation. The fact is though, rumblings of internal discourse have been prevalent for years, and continually, this team has failed to produce commensurate to its talent on paper. In short, something is not adding up.

I recently wrote that since Dustin Byfuglien’s departure in 2019, the organization has steadfastly maintained its belief in its ‘core’. I would define that core to be Wheeler, Scheifele, Hellebuyck, Connor, Ehlers, Morrissey and Lowry. So what is going on?

I don’t think anyone could properly question Hellebuyck’s production and/or contributions to this team. The same goes for Lowry. While he is not as productive as the others on this list – he is not paid to be. That leaves Wheeler, Scheifele, Connor, Morrissey and Ehlers. As an outside observer, Morrissey’s effort and leadership have never been in question – and I would be very reluctant to attribute any portion of this malaise to his doing.

Let’s examine Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele. To be clear, this is not a derogation of either player’s contributions on the ice, or their significant (and by all accounts) superb community outreach. Further, we must also acknowledge that the issue could rest with not just one individual, but rather the collective dynamic of the Jets’ core. Perhaps the right combination of personalities and egos has not been maximized over the years.

Cards on the table though, Wheeler and Scheifele have been with the club the longest, and have formed the crux of leadership for nearly a decade. Wheeler is no longer the captain of the Jets (which speaks volumes in itself), but his presence still carries weight. Scheifele has been an assistant captain for as long as I can remember and is the defacto ‘face’ of this franchise.

Humbly, the evidence suggests that neither are particularly good leaders. There is a selfishness to both that frequently comes to bear. Whether it is his post-2022 press conference statements; his willingness to take extra long shifts; or a general lack of effort – Scheifele is not your prototypical franchise leader. Extremely talented for sure, but something intangible is missing.

Wheeler as well is sometimes truculent with the media and seems prone to point fingers at fans, luck, and circumstance, rather than in the mirror. As simple as it sounds, if Wheeler was a good leader – he would still be captain.

Connor and Ehlers do not escape scrutiny either, as neither has shown any true sign of leadership that can be traced to the proliferation of resilience and self-motivation within the organization. They don’t wear letters on their jerseys, so they become a secondary focus, but it is curious that in Morrissey’s absence, Branden Dillon wore the “A” rather than Connor or Ehlers.

The truth is, the Jets could make a deep playoff run, and all this handwringing may seem premature and capricious. I disagree though. The sample size is too large, and the results too underwhelming for us to at least question the validity of this core group.

Next. How has Dustin Byfuglien’s legacy impacted the Winnipeg Jets?. dark

If motivation is an issue on the highest stage, and under the brightest spotlight – look to your leaders. Running this same core group back for another year seems like a good recipe to be asking these same questions in perpetuity.