Why Do We Fall?

Why the Jets may need to lose the battle to win the war

If patience is a virtue, we’d all be wise to become a lot more virtuous, right now. I don’t want to harp on the following point, but need to make one thing clear: the Jets are…not a good team. To put it very kindly, they are “below average” defensively. They’ve demonstrated a tremendous ability to combine awful give-a-ways with lapses in defensive coverage, serving up prime scoring chances on an all-too-regular basis. Offensively they’re not much better. The team has struggled to create good scoring chances, and has had trouble finishing the few opportunities that have come their way. And while the goaltending hasn’t been the cause of their malaise, it hasn’t done them many favours either. (Though Pavelec was fantastic in Thursday’s third period against Chicago.) So where will this team finish?

I think the Jets are all-but guaranteed to be one of the five worst teams in the league, which means they’ll be getting a “lottery pick” – so named because any team that finishes in the bottom-5 is entered into a lottery to win the first selection in the NHL Entry Draft. The lower you finish, the higher the likelihood of getting the first overall pick, with the last place team having roughly a 50% chance of winning the top pick. (48.2%). Our stiffest competition for that pick is Ottawa – a team that is fully into the rebuilding process and boasts several rookies at each position.

It’s still early, so understandably, some may feel this discussion is premature. Maybe so, but consider this: who are the best teams in the league? Sure there’s some debate in terms of the order, but the general consensus would include at least the following teams: Washington, Pittsburgh, Boston, San Jose, Vancouver, Detroit, Chicago, Buffalo, Los Angeles. Now consider who those teams are led by, and where they were drafted (round, pick #):

Washington – Ovechkin (1, 1), Backstrom (1,4), Semin (1,13), Green (1,29)

Pit – Crosby (1,1), Malkin (1,2), Fleury (1,1), Staal (1,2)

San Jose – Thornton (1,1), Marleau (1,2), Boyle (undrafted)

Chicago – Toews (1,3), Kane (1,1), Keith (2,54)

Vancouver –D. Sedin (1,2), H.Sedin (1,3), Luongo (1,4), Kesler (1,23)

Buffalo – Miller (5,138), Vanek (1,5), Myers (1,12)

Los Angeles – Kopitar (1,11), Doughty (1,2), Richards (1,24), Johnson (1,3)

Boston – Chara (3,56), Thomas (9,217), Krejci (2,62), Bergeron (2,45)

Detroit – Datsyuk (6, 171), Zetterberg (7,210), Lidstrom (3,53)

Notice any trends? Basically if you take out Detroit and Boston, the other 7 teams are led almost exclusively by first round picks. In fact, most of those picks aren’t just first rounders, but early first rounders, particularly when it comes to forwards. In fact, the league’s top point-getters provide further proof of this phenomenon. Last year, 12 of the top 30 scorers in the NHL were top-3 draft picks (they were drafted either 1st, 2nd, or 3rd overall), meaning the team that drafted them would have finished 28th, 29th, or 30th. Of the remaining top scorers, 11 more were first round picks, meaning that only 7 of last year’s top-30 scorers were drafted outside the first round. And the draft position of the top goal scorers is even more skewed – of the top-20 goal scorers last season, only one (Patrick Sharp) was not a first round draft pick! Meanwhile, 9 of the top-20 were top-3 picks.

While this data is powerful, it isn’t the be-all, end-all. If you looked at Florida’s roster five years ago, Columbus’ roster a few seasons ago, or Atlanta/Winnipeg’s roster now, you’d know that not all early draft selections become top players – even the very early picks. But there’s a very simple reason for that, and it’s the same rationale which guides me to believe that Mark Scheifele is better off in junior hockey. The simple formula for ruining a great prospect is (1) put him in the NHL as soon as possible, and (2) put him on a really bad team. Both of the above apply to the situation here in Winnipeg because of the boneheaded decisions made by the Thrashers’ regime. They rushed Bogosian, Kane, and Burmistrov, harming their development and the team’s long-term success. Management in Columbus has been equally inept, rushing plenty of youngsters like Zherdev, Brule, Filatov, and many others. In fact, Columbus’ draft futility is unmatched in recent NHL history: of the first 9 draft picks in team history (2000-2008), 7 have been traded. Of the two that remain, one is franchise forward Rick Nash, and the other is Derick Brassard – a talented forward who is currently being mentioned in countless trade rumours. It’s no surprise that Columbus has made only one playoff appearance in their 10 NHL seasons to date.

If you want to see how to build a team, look no further than the Detroit Red Wings. Do you know the last teenager to appear in a Red Wings uniform? Jiri Fischer – in 1999. These days, the Wings make you play several seasons in Europe or the AHL before they’ll let you have a shot at the big club. That strategy seemed to work fine for Henrik Zetterberg, who started his career at age 22, and Pavel Datsyuk, who emerged at age 23. Critics contend that other teams aren’t able to do this – they “don’t have the luxury”. They say that because of the Wings’ tremendous organizational depth, their prospects’ paths to the NHL is naturally blocked. While that is true, it’s also a load of BS. Any team can plug holes in their line-up with affordable, NHL-ready 3rd and 4th liners, and tell their best prospects to work their tails off in junior until they’re ready to come to the NHL and dominate. It doesn’t matter that Mark Scheifele is immediately better than some of our current players; the Jets’ underwhelming roster isn’t the appropriate point of comparison. The goal is for him to be a first-line centre, not for him to be better than Kyle Wellwood.

One thing is certain: the future will be a lot brighter if we can get an elite player here soon. There are many gifted players in the Jets’ organization right now – from Enstrom, to Kane, Burmistrov, Little, and Scheifele – but none of them are elite talents. But there is a player out there who is touted as this year’s can’t-miss prospect, and he’d make a world of difference in shaping the course of this franchise.

Jets fans, meet Nail Yakupov (<–sweet vid).

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