With the NHL lockout delaying the start of the season, Shane Hnidy and I had the opportunity to head over to Ufa, Russia to call World Junior Championship games for the TSN and Team Radio networks. Despite Ufa not being the easiest place to get to (or from) it was a great experience. (It was about 27 hours getting there and 32 hours coming back) It's a case now of just trying to get rid of the jet lag. It was a complete flip of the clock, as Ufa is 12 hours ahead of Winnipeg.
The hockey was excellent. It gave us a chance to see top prospects from all NHL teams, and also a look at some of the talent that will be featured in this summer's draft. Seth Jones showed why he is rated number one on Craig Button's list. The big defenceman from the Portland Winter Hawks had a great tournament. Canada had two 17-year-olds on the roster, Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin, and neither looked out of place, playing in what is pretty much an 18/19 year old tournament. Drouin might be the one player that climbed the draft ladder with his play.
The Winnipeg Jets had to like what they saw in their two draft picks that played in the tournament. Mark Scheifele, who plays centre for the Barrie Colts, was moved to right wing and finished with five goals and eight points in six games. Scheifele will be at Jets training camp this weekend. He will be able to play five games before a decision would have to be made on his status going forward. The player at the World Juniors that turned heads was defenceman Jacob Trouba, part of the gold medal-winning U.S. team.
Trouba was 4-5-9 in seven games played, to lead all "D" in scoring. Three of his four goals came on the power play. He had 23 shots on goal and was named the top defenceman in the tournament and selected to the All-Star team. Trouba is 6'2", 194 lbs. and will turn 21 next month. He has returned to the University of Michigan.
On the topic of training camp, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff would like to keep the number of players at around 27. The Jets are pretty much at that number now if you add up the returning players, unrestricted free agents signed during the summer, Scheifele (19, 6'2", 184, seven NHL games played, one goal) and six players in from the farm team in St. John's. Those six are defencemen Paul Postma (23, 6'3", 195, four NHL GP), Zach Redmond (24, 6'2", 197), Derek Meech (28, 5'11", 205, 128 NHL GP, four goals), and forwards Maxime Macenauer (24, 6', 205, 29 NHL GP Anaheim, one goal), Spencer Machacek (24, 6'1", 200, 25 NHL GP, two goals), and Alex Burmistrov, who at 22 starts his third NHL season after 13-15-28 numbers last year.
Training camps, or lack thereof, have been interesting for Jets head coach Claude Noel. Last year the Jets had to play under the Atlanta Thrashers pre-season schedule, meaning split-squad games, lots of travel, and never the opportunity to have all his troops under one roof. Then this year, it's a shortened camp because of the work stoppage. But at least this year he will know most of his players, and they will know what to expect from the always-colourful coach. (Oh how we have missed his post game news conferences)
Any coach starting this season with a new team will find it difficult to get his systems in place in such a short time.
Jets part owner Mark Chipman held a conference call with the media on Thursday, and discussed a number of topics including the new CBA, which was approved by the owners with a 30-0 vote on Wednesday. Players plan to have their ratification vote completed by the weekend, at which point the schedule will be released. Reports indicate the Jets will open Saturday the 19th with a home matinee against Ottawa. (TSN 1290, the radio home for all Jets games and all things Jets)
Chipman feels the new CBA levels the playing field, and when asked how important the new limit on length of contract was to the Jets, his reply was "very important." The Jets operate under a budget, more than they do trying to hit the NHL cap limit. And even though the new CBA helps markets like Winnipeg with HRR now being split 50/50, the picture won't be totally clear until the "make whole" provision works its way through the system over the next two years. With the lockout Chipman is just now starting to look closer at his on ice product. "The guys Chevy acquired will help, and our young guys are another year into their development, so I am very excited."
The lockout has angered a lot of people, and for that Chipman is sorry. In an interview with Gary Lawless of the Winnipeg Free Press and TSN 1290, Chipman had this to say. "I'm very sorry we were unable to start the season on time. We all have to share the responsibility for this. I don't expect everyone to understand why we took the position we did. I don't regret having taken the position but I apologize for it having angered people. Having said that, I've been taken by the amount of support we've had in our community."
Fans in Winnipeg and markets like Winnipeg knew the rules had to change. Some of the loopholes that general managers and agents were able to find in the last CBA had to be closed. The 12- and 15-year deals that are front-loaded are not good for the game.
The 10-year CBA (mutual opt out after eight) gives the game some stability going forward. That was critical for fans and sponsors. The idea of going through this again in five or six years made no sense.
I have felt for some time that a debriefing is now needed. Both sides have spent millions on lawyers, hotel, travel, etc. without a game being played. Well, spend a few more dollars and determine why this happened. Why did the Players' Association not start meaningful negotiations earlier? How big of a mistake was it by the owners to flip the HRR split in their first offer? Is, or should the NHLPA be wanting to help struggling franchises? Was there a deal to be made off the NHL's offer of October 16 that would have saved an 82-game season? Where were the all-night negotiating sessions in October, November, and December? All it took was ONE, yes ONE, all-night session and a deal was done.
I know, "the process", we heard it a hundred times. No matter how many times I hear it, I'm not buying it. This lockout did not have to happen and both sides owe it to themselves, those who have jobs that revolve around the game, and the fans, to determine why it did. But I am also realistic enough to know there will be no debriefing. The truth might hurt.
And while we are asking questions, why is it taking all week for players to ratify this deal? There's not a player out there who three days ago wasn't ready to vote "accept". Not that we needed to squeeze two more games in, but it would have allowed an eight- or nine-day training camp, versus a four- or five-day camp, perhaps preventing groin and hip problems as players push themselves to get into game shape.
And why has realignment not been approved? Please, let's not turn this into another battle between the NHL and the NHLPA. It's needed, just do it.
So no more questions, no more rants, no more lockout frustration. Let's get going with training camps, followed by the 48-game schedule, and let the healing begin. Only time will tell how much damage has been done to this great game.