Mark Chipman sat down with TSN’s Darren Dreger this week, for a nearly twenty minute long interview that addressed a number of topics.
I was almost uncomfortable watching it, with how intense the TV production made it seem. The close up of Dreger’s face with the side of Chipman’s head providing the foreground made it run more like a Survivor scene than a hockey interview. It was something else.
But the primary reason for the rare public Chipman appearance is the fact that the Jets’ attendance is down after 10 straight years of sell outs, and the season ticket base has fallen from 13,000 to under 10,000.
And, obviously, that’s a serious conversation for any franchise and an outcome that is somewhat surprising based on the passion Canadian markets, and Winnipeg, has for the sport of hockey. Small market or not, hockey is king here.
There was lots to parse from such a long interview. And, unlike Kevin Chevyldayoff – who no doubt has one of the league’s highest nothingness-to-word ratio – Chipman gave plenty to talk about.
Here’s what stood out.
“Rebuilds are expensive, take a long time”
The word “rebuild”, along with “Hellebuyck”, “Scheifele, and “Jets”, were probably the four words that popped up the most over this past summer. Scheifele and Hellebuyck were on expiring contracts, the team had been unable to find 100 points since 2017-18, and the team was clearly past its peak.
It was the first time in Jets 2.0 history that there was a logical pivot point from the Mark Scheifele era.
Loud fans online made it clear that the Jets needed to move on from Scheifele, and trade Hellebuyck for the boat load of assets that a top three netminder should command.
In fact, even after Scheifele and Hellebuyck signed matching seven year contracts, almost a quarter of this small sample still believe that wasn’t the correct choice.
I argued long and hard in September that the Jets shouldn’t rebuild. If you skip the portion about what to do with Hellebuyck and Scheifele, there’s plenty there that is still relevant.
Chipman also alluded to the pain of a rebuild. It’s a word that’s easy to romanticize. It’s a concept that can apply to many areas of life, hoping extreme action can fix an area of your life that isn’t working. Quitting a job. Ending a long term relationship. Moving to a different city.
Those might produce favorable outcomes in the long run, yes. But they are difficult. And the fresh optimism of a new beginning is quickly confronted with the reality of the challenging work ahead. So if you’re going to embark on such a path, you’d better be as sure as you can be that it’s the right one.
Consider a few current rebuilds.
There are 30 year olds in Buffalo who have never seen a playoff game as an adult. Same goes for Arizona. In Vancouver, they’ve bottomed out, acquired elite talent in Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, and they still haven’t made the playoffs.
It’s easy to say things are wrong with a team. It’s easy to say that trading your stars for futures will work out.
But you can’t go to the calendar like in NHL 24 and simulate to the year 2027.
You have to live and endure a horrible team bottoming out for high draft picks. And then you have to wait while those draft picks turn from 32 point rookies into 80 point studs.
And while young, skilled talent with room to grow is one of fandom’s most enjoyable concepts (I’m having a blast watching Perfetti’s development this year), it still takes plenty of time and a bit of luck to get enough of them to start doing some damage.
Getting enough to win a Cup?
That’s a whole different story.
“We turned six kids pro this summer” – Mark Chipman
The other, underrated part of the Jets current path is their prospect pool.
“We turned six kids pro this summer – we’ve never done that before,” Chipman said. “We’ve got what we think is a really good pipeline of young players coming along.”
That’s true, but there is no incoming elite talent.
That being said, the Manitoba Moose are well situated, and are an entertaining and interesting team to follow. The team’s top four forward prospects all have top six potential, and defensemen such as Ville Heinola and Elias Salomonsson should make it as bottom pair defenders with a chance to become more.
From 2018-2022, the team graduated very few prospects, largely a result of trading first round picks in 2017 and 2018 for the first time in team history.
That’s changed now. The franchise is in a decent place, given the talent already on the roster that is locked up long term.
And I think the Jets prospect pool will have a real impact on this team in one or two years. There’s good stuff coming, but you can’t rush them. There will be natural roles for them to earn, as players such as Nino Niederreiter, Vladislav Namestnikov, Alex Iafallo, Mason Appleton, and even Nik Ehlers are all UFAs over the next two years.
On the blue line, Brendan Dillon and Dylan DeMelo are UFAs after this year, while Nate Schmidt and Neal Pionk are the following year.
The Jets should try and keep some of those players on that list (Ehlers, Iafallo, Namestnikov, and DeMelo are my personal choices), but there will be plenty of holes to fill over the coming years.
I think the Jets are well positioned to fill those holes internally, which they were not in a position to do in say, 2020 or 2021.
My apathetic experience as a Winnipeg Jets fan
To touch on some of the attendance issues, I’m going to summarize my feelings and thoughts of being a Jets fan over the past decade.
I think my experience isn’t an uncommon one.
Let’s quickly unpack it.
The Jets return in 2011. From 2011-2016, they go on a remarkable run at the draft table, buoyed by the 2016 draft, where they selected 2nd overall and added Patrik Laine to the mix.
The team explodes, producing 114 points in 2017-18, and falling in the Western Conference Final.
The 2018-19 season sees an elite Jets team stumble over the final 20 games, lose to the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, and that year is arguably the most disappointing season in Jets 2.0 history.
Shortly after, the franchise changes drastically, and permanently.
Dustin Byfuglien decides he’s done with hockey. After Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, and Ben Chiarot all moved on one way or another, the Jets iced the worst defense group this team has ever seen. Winnipeg’s top tier forward group and Hellebuyckian goaltending is wasted for a few years.
The two years following Byfuglien’s retirement, I gave the team a pass as they tried to retool the blueline. I don’t think anyone saw that one coming, and expectations needed to be lowered. Derek Forbort playing 20 minutes per night isn’t a good idea to anyone.
That retool eventually happened in the summer of 2021, when Brendan Dillon and Nate Schmidt were acquired.
But what followed was the lost season of Paul Maurice, where, despite an improved blue line on paper, the team took no step forward. Maurice resigned, Dave Lowry failed to improve a very difficult situation, and Jets fans were left with their hands in the air wondering what the heck just happened.
That’s when, for me, my trust in the franchise diminished, and I reached a point of apathy.
I’ll follow closely again when they’re worth following closely again.
Luckily that didn’t take too long.
Rick Bowness’ Jets inspired that hope again last year, before a very frustrating finish to the season.
But this past off season, Kevin Chevyldayoff did well in the Pierre-Luc Dubois trade. It replenished a diminished forward group.
And that’s led to my glass half-full view today that this team is at worst, a playoff one.
But I’m an optimist by nature, and that’s how I experience my Winnipeg Jets fandom.
Not everyone will have the same faith in this management or team as I do, and that’s okay.
So how does this team take the next step?
I don’t have any solution to the attendance issues, nor am I one to go tell people to spend money on a product they either don’t want to see, don’t believe in, or can’t afford to see.
But there’s one thing I do know: great hockey teams are a blast to watch, and put fans in the seats. They’re also hard to build, and the duration of their peak is unpredictable. Surely the 2017-18 Jets are a testament to that.
If the Jets want to increase attendance, the solution is simple in theory, but hard to execute. They need to recreate the hope and optimism that was impossible to miss during this team’s ascension as a draft and development team. I think we all remember that The Hockey News predicted the Jets as their 2019 Stanley Cup winner in 2015, and that optimism was well founded. They were a young, deep, talented team with a near pristine cap sheet.
I’m not so bullish on today’s Jets that I’m going to predict any Stanley Cups here.
But this team’s forward group is above average. Hellebuyck is Hellebuyck. If the Jets can acquire a true top four defenseman – not unlike what the Oilers were able to do last year – I think this team can not only make the playoffs, but do damage.
In the parity of this salary cap world, all you can do is keep giving yourself a chance.
And let’s consider the following personnel challenges of the past few seasons. Paul Maurice had ran his course as a coach, yet was still around any way. A disgruntled Patrik Laine ended up turning into another disgruntled asset in Pierre-Luc Dubois. And Blake Wheeler’s legendary Jets career had unfortunately lasted one year too long.
That’s all in the past now.
Maurice is two years removed from his resignation, and Dubois and Wheeler were left town this past summer.
That’s all addition by subtraction when it comes to team harmony.
The Jets have a core group of players that want to be here, and are committed to winning in Winnipeg. For me, there’s a different vibe in this group and around the team.
In my mind, the Jets are a high quality defenseman away from icing a very, very good hockey team.
And maybe puttin’ a few more butts in the seats.