They can take the big defenceman and throw him up on the wing, a desperate act borne of a coach’s death throes. Or have a player stand up now and again, as Blake Wheeler did, and say: “You can blow smoke as much as you want in the media. We’ve been blowing smoke for three years.” You can find a way to tap big Wheeler, whose production has been steady and significant in Winnipeg. Or have a sturdy captain in Andrew Ladd who has won two Stanley Cups at age 28, or blue-chip rookies like Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba, who 29 other GMs would fall over themselves trying to acquire.
But when arguably your best two players are immature freelancers like Dustin Byfuglien and Evander Kane, can you ever succeed in the National Hockey League?
Off the ice, and on, fired coach Claude Noel’s fate was sealed most significantly by those two players’ behaviour. Ondrej Pavelec’s average play in goal is a close third, but blame GM Kevin Cheveldayoff for giving a five-year contract to a career .906 netminder, not Pavelec. The Byfuglien-Kane entry? There is no one to blame there, other than them.
We get that young players take time to learn how to play a system. Byfuglien is 28. He’s not a young player anymore. We understand that a 22-year-old like Kane has to learn how to play within that system and handle the off-ice glare in a town like Winnipeg, where there isn’t a moment of privacy for any of the Jets. But Nov. 6, when Kane publicly disputed Noel’s assertion that he was still injured, it was an act of direct insubordination. “The definition of a healthy scratch is a healthy player not playing so that was my interpretation,” Kane said. “It’s pretty obvious that’s what it was.”
When rumours were flying around Winnipeg that Kane was leaving unpaid bar tabs around town last season, Noel and the rest of the Jets had Kane’s back. They downplayed the comments, protected him. And that’s how Kane repaid Noel this season—by exposing what the coach likely hoped to be a quiet wake-up call for Kane, and causing Noel and the Jets much public embarrassment.
Every Winnipeg Jets player shows up at training camp and sees that, even though he has been busting his butt to get in shape, Byfuglien usually has not. Then the season starts, and on pure talent, Byfuglien is still one of the team’s best defencemen Noel has. So like any coach trying to win, he plays Big Buff 25-plus minutes a game. Byfuglien, meanwhile, refuses to play the defensive system coached by assistant Charlie Huddy. He throws pizzas up the middle nightly, and does what he wants through most games. Everyone else is playing the system. He can’t be bothered.
Then, when the Jets are trailing—often because of the aforementioned—Byfuglien is out there on the power play because the team needs a goal. Sugar time, awarded to a guy who doesn’t deserve it.
So, how do the actions of a couple of players affect the group, you might ask? Here is how: When the messages become, “We’ll bench or trade any guy who publicly embarrasses our coach the way Kane did. Except Kane, because, well, there are the makings of a real good player here.” and “Being in shape and committed to team goals really only applies to the guys who aren’t as naturally talented as Byfuglien.”
That, folks, is why a hockey dressing room is a socialist environment. The best players get a somewhat slightly wider berth. But the disparity can’t be this great.
So the option for Noel—and trusty assistant Perry Pearn, also fired on Sunday—is to stand on principle, and be certain to lose games. Or, play the hell out of Byfuglien and Kane, and be certain to lose the dressing room. As for the leadership group, how do captain Ladd and his lieutenants Wheeler and Mark Stuart deal with Byfuglien? Good luck, considering he won’t even honour his media responsibilities on a semi-regular basis? He leaves that to everyone else on his team.
The way Kane does keeping a secret, or knowing who is the boss.
When the pillars are weak, the structure is wobbly. Your move, Paul Maurice. Hope you brought the backhoe.