It was like the air was released out of the room. And the response was impressive.
On a night when the Winnipeg Jets traded their captain to a divisional rival and essentially acquiesced from the 2016 Stanley Cup playoff race, the team’s 6-3 victory over the Dallas Stars that followed said a lot about the relief the trade generated around the team and its direction moving ahead.
To be fair, the win and team’s high-energy play against the Stars was nothing personal to the departure of Andrew Ladd. Leading up to Thursday’s trade he was extremely revered by rookies and veterans alike for his play on the ice and leadership off of it as the club’s captain for every game in the Manitoba history of the franchise.
But as an unrestricted free agent and contract talks at an impasse along with the team wallowing in last place in the Central Division, the “writing was on the wall” as Ladd put it himself just before his final home game with the club last week.
“It was a big day in our franchise history,” said Jets’ head coach Paul Maurice. “I think in some way some finality crept in and there was the exhale that needed to happen. Sometimes you do need to just go out and play. It cleared a lot of things up for us.”
Entering this season the contract status of both Ladd and supernova Dustin Byfuglien were the biggest questions surrounding the team, as both were set to become UFAs this summer. Resolution to that uncertainty came to fruition in February when Byfuglien re-signed for five years and Ladd was dealt to Chicago just prior to the trade deadline.
So with one of the franchise core players moved out and opportunity knocking for some of the team’s youth, the perfect intersection appeared to be at the American Airlines Centre in Dallas last week.
Players like Mark Scheifele, Adam Lowry, Joel Armia and Nikolaj Ehlers cast a larger spotlight on themselves with their play that night in Texas. Scheifele had a four-point game; Armia his first two-goal night while Lowry and Ehlers took over the game in their roles and showed fans why there’s real hope and optimism for the team moving forward with those players driving the bus.
In other words, it was a coming out party for the team’s young, budding stars. Maybe even a slight passing of the torch.
“We got some good leadership from some young men,” said Maurice. “Regardless of the age of a player when they feel that there’s more investment they have more into the game to decide the outcome. They looked around down the bench and just saw a lot of other young guys….so there was a kind of calm on our bench that we haven’t had in a while.”
Obviously, it was difficult for the team to part ways with Ladd. He was the face of the franchise since they arrived from Atlanta and the team’s leading scorer in two of the last four seasons. But his trade in a lot of ways signifies a new era for Jets hockey. It might not produce the results as quick some would like, but if the kids play like they did in Dallas last week, they’re going to be fun to watch for the remaining 20 games on the regular season and maybe for the next 20 years.
On the subject of naming a new captain, here’s Maurice’s response: “We’re going to go through a process. Management and ownership will be included. I don’t have a timeline for it. It’s a real possibility that we’d have a captain this season. But I don’t want to put out any expectations. It’s not something you want to be flipping every couple of years. Kevin (Cheveldayoff, Jets GM) and I haven’t sat down and talked about it. We’re all aware of the obvious guys, but we’re going to talk about a lot of guys.” Many believe right winger Blake Wheeler is the front runner to be named the team’s next captain.
Always a great quote, Maurice had this to say about his club’s February schedule that had his Jets play 12 games in 12 different cities through seven different time zone changes. “It was a great learning experience. And I think we’re going to get the opportunity to do it again.” In other words, with the Jets residing geographically in the middle of the country and with only one other team within an hour flight (Minnesota), Winnipeg’s bench boss obviously doesn’t anticipate the back and forth nature of the team’s travel schedule changing for future seasons.
NOTES: To date, 10 players have played in every game this season for the Jets: Jacob Trouba, Chris Thorburn, Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers, Dustin Byfuglien, Toby Enstrom and Tyler Myers….If all seven Canadian teams fail to make the playoffs this season it will mark the first time since 1970 that the Stanley Cup playoffs with be devoid of a Canuck component. Back then, there were just two Canadian teams (Montreal and Toronto) in the league. Vancouver joined the NHL the next season. For the record, the Jets 1.0 qualified for the post-season six consecutive times from 1983-1988….Prior to being claimed off waivers by Edmonton, defenceman Adam Pardy played 129 games with the Jets and never scored a goal….If you coach kids hockey you might want to spend the $35 and purchase Barrett Langanchuk’s book: Elite Hockey Development Drills. As the Jets’ Scouting Coordinator he’s produced an excellent resource for new drills and high-end practice plans.