About the Winnipeg Jets at the halfway mark…Acts II and III of the NHL season…Chevy’s next move…trading Puck Finn for Matthew Tkachuk…the awfulness of Twitter and NFL replays…’oddly compelling’…Yahoo searches…and sharing oxygen with the giants

Monday morning coming down in 3, 2, 1…and if NFL replay guys don’t know a catch from a fumble or where to place the football, how are we supposed to know?

These Winnipeg Jets are an interesting study.

They have arrived at the midway mark of their regular-season crusade where many of us figured them to be—atop the Western Conference table—but they seem to be something of a tease.

Clearly among the National Hockey League elite, they go about their business in a very workmanlike manner, determined and purposeful, yet it’s as if they’re holding something in reserve, offering only hints of what might be.

They have strut, but they fall noticeably short of cock-of-the-walk arrogance, which is a good thing. It’s as if they know they’re damn good, but they also seem to know they aren’t damn near good enough.

Perhaps that’s the lesson learned from their dizzying ascent and subsequent comeuppance in last spring’s Stanley Cup runoff, when they were found to be a brick or two short of a load and eventually bowed to the upstarts from Las Vegas in the tournament semifinals.

Let’s face it, the NHL season is a three-part play: Act I is October-November-December hockey, Act II is January-February-March hockey, Act III is the beast known as the playoffs. You can get by with good in Act I. You need to up your game in Act II. Only great is acceptable in Act III.

And lest there be any doubt, it has become all about Act III for Winnipeg HC, not the regular season.

Puck Finn

Given that our hockey heroes have stared into the maw of the playoff beast, it follows that they surely recognize what lies in front of them will be contested at a higher in-your-face intensity. The grit quotient required to achieve the most favorable playoff seeding is amped up. It takes Blake Wheeler kind of grit. Does Winnipeg HC have enough of it? Well, every time I see Patrik (Puck Finn) Laine floating aimlessly about the freeze, I think not. Then I see Mathieu Perreault busting his hump along the wall and I think, “Ya, man, that’s how it’s done. Puck Finn take note.” Never thought I’d say it, but les Jets need more Perreault and less Puck Finn.

Chevy

Forty-one games in, I harbor the same concerns that I had in early October—centre ice and defence. I didn’t expect general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to tinker with his roster pre-Christmas, but, as I wrote before they dropped the puck, he’ll have to do something before crunch time. I don’t think this Jets outfit is as good as the group that bowed out vs. the Vegas Golden Knights last spring. Mind you, at least one pundit begs to differ. “I think it is. (They’re) very much as good as last year,” says TSN talking head Mike Johnson. Except he then mentions the need for an upgrade at—you guessed it—centre ice. “Ideally” Bryan Little would be on the third line and Chevy would go out and grab someone to slide into the No. 2 slot. “That’s the one spot the Jets might want to try and address,” Johnson suggests. So if I’m hearing him correctly, Johnson figures les Jets are as good as before, except they aren’t. Sure. And Milan Lucic is the same beast he was in 2011, except he isn’t.

Blake Wheeler and Rink Rat Scheifele

Hightlight of les Jets’ first 41 skirmishes for me? Rink Rat Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. They just keep getting it done. And, unlike a lot of folks, I’m not convinced that Scheifele is the most valuable player on the Jets. I still say it’s Wheeler.

Question to ask yourself, Part I: Would you trade les Jets roster even up for the Golden Knights roster? I wouldn’t either, so why did Vegas get to the Stanley Cup final last spring and why does it have more wins and points than Winnipeg HC today (after a horrendous start to the season)? Could the reason be found behind the bench? Just asking.

Matthew Tkachuk

Question to ask yourself, Part II: Would you trade Laine even up for Matthew Tkachuk? I think I might. All that glitters with Puck Finn is goals. The rest of his game? Meh to disastrous. Tkachuk, on the other hand, brings a more complete package, including serious snark. Just turned 21, he’s already an assistant captain with the Calgary Flames, and I don’t think Keith’s kid takes a shift off, let alone a month. He has the kind of jam you need in the post-season, and his 49 points tower over Puck Finn’s 32. Nobody’s saying Chevy coughed up a hairball in choosing Puck Finn second overall in the 2016 NHL auction of freshly scrubbed teenagers, but, based on career growth to date, Tkachuk might have been the better choice. I wouldn’t have said that a year ago.

Latest sign that the world has gone stark-raving mad: Cody Parkey flubs a field goal attempt that eliminates the Chicago Bears from the National Football League playoffs, and he receives death threats on Twitter. That’s some kind of scary stuff.

I’m a big fan of replay in sports. I’m not a big fan of replay officials. I mean, some of the decision-making in Sunday’s NFL wild-card skirmishing was as ridiculous as the gown Lady Gaga wore to the Golden Globe Awards gala. (Seriously. The train on that thing was longer than most of the passes Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson tossed.)

Kawhi Leonard

This from Cathal Kelly of the Globe and Mail: “After only four months in the country, Kawhi Leonard has become the most oddly compelling athlete in the country.” I really wish sports scribes working in the Republic of Tranna would stop telling those of us who live in the colonies what we’re thinking. It’s rude and offensive. I read all of Canada’s major dailies, and I don’t see any of our flowers of jock journalism (outside The ROT) writing about Leonard or the Raptors. Leonard and the Tranna Raptors are not a topic of conversation where I live. Of the athletes most searched on Yahoo! Canada in 2018, Leonard is nowhere to be found. Genie Bouchard is there. Brooke Henderson is there. Erik Karlsson is there. But not Kawhi Leonard. Among the top 10 sports searches, the Raptors fell into the seventh slot, behind soccer’s World Cup, the Tranna Blue Jays, Maple Leafs, Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens. Leonard and the Raptors are a “thing” in The ROT. Nowhere else.

Genie Bouchard

If we do have a most “oddly compelling” athlete, it has to be tennis diva Bouchard. I mean, aside from flashing a great amount of flesh in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, she did nothing of note in 2018. She’s short on charisma and seemingly long on sourpuss-ism. So how is it that she was the second most-searched athlete on Yahoo! Canada, behind only Tiger Woods? I guess it’s not how many tennis matches you win that counts, it’s how many pieces of clothing you remove. Here are the Yahoo! Canada search lists for ’18:

Overall
Donald Trump
Tranna Blue Jays
Tranna Maple Leafs
Justin Trudeau
Meghan Markle
The Canadian dollar
Doug Ford
Melania Trump
World Cup
Winnipeg Jets

Athletes
Tiger Woods
Eugenie Bouchard
Serena Williams
LeBron James
Cristiano Ronaldo
Brooke Henderson
Erik Karlsson
Conor McGregor
Ronda Rousey
Roger Federer

Sports
Word Cup
Tranna Blue Jays
Tranna Maple Leafs
Winnipeg Jets
Edmonton Oilers
Montreal Canadiens
Tranna Raptors
Vancouver Canucks
Australian Open
U.S. Open (tennis)

matty
Matty

And, finally, as a follow-up to comments I made Sunday about old friend Paul Friesen’s superb, thoughtful and touching piece on legendary broadcaster Bob Picken in the Winnipeg Sun, I must mention how fortunate and blessed I was to have worked with, and against, some of the men from what Paul F. described as the “golden age” of sports media in Good Ol’ Hometown. It was a treat and privilege to rub shoulders with Pick, Jack Matheson, Don Wittman, John Robertson, Hal Sigurdson, Jack Wells, Don Wittman et al. I certainly didn’t belong in their class, but it was kind of them to share the classroom with me.

About what a hockey town looks like…NHL teams that actually make trades…old man Sudsy…Coach Potty-Mouth’s smugness…a steaming mess of hooey in Vancouver…and blaming it all on Canada’s sad-sack hockey fans

I cannot survive in a 140-character world, so here are more tweets that grew up to be too big for Twitter…

In the department of really, really, really dumb headlines, Sportsnet takes the prize for this: “Oilers fans ready to show us what a hockey town looks like.”

Edmonton Oilers fans perfected the jersey toss.

Just wondering, would those be the same fans who, only two years ago, were hurling Edmonton Oilers jerseys onto the ice in disgust? Those people are going to show the rest of us how it’s done? That’s like hiring Don Cherry as a wardrobe consultant. Or Meryl Streep recruiting Adam Sandler as an acting coach.

Hey, don’t get me wrong. Oilers fans are terrific. When they aren’t tossing $200 orange-and-blue clothing onto the freeze.

I doubt there’s anything Oilers loyalists can teach the faithful in the other six National Hockey League ports-of-call in Canada, with the possible exception of Vancouver, where the locals like to play with matches and try to reduce the town to ashes whenever the Canucks lose a playoff series. I mean, what can the rabble in Montreal, for example, learn from their counterparts in The Chuck? Zilch, that’s what.

Officially, Roman Catholicism is the main religion in Montreal. But we know better, don’t we. It’s hockey, specifically les Canadiens. The team jersey (which no one tosses on the ice surface) is known as La Sainte-Flanelle—the Holy Flannel. The Habs’ former home, the fabled Forum, wasn’t a hockey rink. It was a cathedral. Carey Price isn’t a goaltender. He’s deity. If he backstops les Glorieux to their 25th Stanley Cup title, he, like Patrick Roy, will achieve sainthood. At the very least, he becomes the Pope.

And Edmonton is going to show Montreal what a hockey town looks like? As if.

Yo! Kevin Cheveldayoff! Did you notice who scored twice for the Toronto Maple Leafs in their double OT victory over the Washington Capitals on Saturday night? That’s right, Kasperi Kapanen, acquired as part of the Phil Kessel trade. And did you notice who assisted on both of Kapanen’s goals, including the overtime winner? That’s right, Brian Boyle, acquired just before the trade deadline for a minor leaguer and a conditional second-round draft choice. So you see, Chevy, there’s more to being an NHL general manager than draft and develop. It’s actually permissible to improve your Winnipeg Jets roster via barter, whether it means surrendering spare parts or an elite performer, as the Leafs did with Kessel.

Jets captain Blake Wheeler would excel in playoff hockey.

I don’t know if Blake Wheeler has been watching first-round Stanley Cup skirmishing, but, if so, I’m guessing it must really gnaw at the Jets captain that he isn’t included in the fun. This is his kind of hockey—intense, ballsy, belligerent, hostile, up-tempo, elite. Wheeler would excel on that stage. As for his colleagues, I wonder how many of the Jets could compete in that environment. It would be nice to find out sometime this decade. Well, wouldn’t it, Chevy?

Unless I missed it, the Winnipeg Free Press ignored the passing of Bill (Sudsy) Sutherland, a member of the original Word Hockey Association Jets team and assistant/head coach of Jets 1.0 in the NHL. Sudsy’s death doesn’t warrant a mention? Not even a paragraph or three on one of the truly good guys in Jets lore? That’s totally lame.

Funny story about Sudsy from Joe Watson, a teammate with the original Philadelphia Flyers in 1967. After scoring the first goal in franchise history in Oakland, Sudsy and the Flyers returned home for their season debut at the Spectrum, on Oct. 19. Here’s how Watson remembered it for csnphilly.com: “We’re coming through the building and the security guards were there and we are all walking through and all of us are looking kind of young and Billy was looking older and the security guard says, ‘Where are you going? Billy says, ‘I’m a player.’ And the security guard says, ‘You can’t be. You’re too old.’ He was 36 at the time.” As it happened, Sudsy scored the only goal that night in a 1-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins. He had lifetime security clearance thereafter.

I’m not sure what was more astonishing at Paul Maurice’s season-over chin-wag with news scavengers, his unvarnished arrogance or his smugness. Asked by Paul Friesen of the Winnipeg Sun why, given the head coach’s track record, Jets fans should be confident that he is the right man to “turn this (team) around,” Coach Potty-Mouth declared “It doesn’t need to be turned around. It’s already headed in the right direction.” Well, excuuuuse us all to hell. And here we thought the Jets missed the playoffs. Again. Later, Maurice twice refused to allow TSN’s Sara Orlesky to complete a question about acquiring a veteran goaltender, interrupting her both times with a smug response. I will say one thing for Coach Potty-Mo, though: At one point, he confessed to lying to the media. I’m sure they take considerable comfort in knowing they shouldn’t believe anything he tells them.

While it remains uncertain if the Jets are, indeed, “headed in the right direction,” as Maurice submits, I’ll take their roster over that steaming mess of hooey in Vancouver. Do the deep-thinkers with the Canucks (hello Trevor Linden and Jim Benning) even have a clue? Basically, they fired their head coach, Willie Desjardins, because the Sedin twins, Daniel and Henrik, had the bad manners to get old, and former GM Mike Gillis mangled half a dozen entry drafts.

To underscore how fortunate the Jets were at the draft lottery last April, consider this: By the odds, they should have picked no higher than sixth in the annual auction of freshly scrubbed teenagers. Patrik Laine would have been gone by then and they likely would have settled for Keith Tkachuk’s boy Matthew. The difference between Puck Finn and Tkachuk? Twenty-three goals, with Laine scoring 36 and Keith’s kid 13 for the Calgary Flames. Of the top 10 youngsters chosen last year, only three—Laine, Tkachuk and Auston Matthews—played full time in the NHL this season. That’s how lucky the Jets were at the lottery.

Blame it on the fans.

Paul Wiecek of the Free Press offers an interesting theory in explaining why NHL outfits from the True North have failed to bring the Stanley Cup home since 1993—it’s your fault, Josephine and Joe Phan. “My theory,” Wiecek writes, “is that we’re to blame—every sad-sack hockey fan in Canada who continues to fill the arenas in this country and pay huge bucks to watch mediocre (at best) hockey. Our strength as a hockey nation is also our biggest weakness when it comes to the NHL: our passion for the sport—and our willingness to be separated from our money in support of it, no matter what—provides no incentive for our NHL teams to be anything more than exactly what they are: Just good enough to make the playoffs but not nearly good enough to actually win a Cup.” The alternative, I suppose, is to stop supporting Canadian-based teams and let them all move to the southern U.S. How did that work out for Winnipeg the first time?

An odd bit of analysis on the Jets was delivered by Jeff Hamilton, one of the young scribes at the Drab Slab. “It makes little sense at this point to start pointing fingers,” he writes in the Freep. Really? If the media isn’t prepared to critique the local hockey heroes and assign responsibility for failing to qualify for the Stanley Cup derby, who will? Certainly not the fans, who, as Wiecek submits, happily part with their money for the opportunity to watch mediocrity. It’s the responsibility of the Fourth Estate to hold the Jets’ feet to the fire, and a talented writer/reporter like Hamilton surely knows that.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been scribbling about Winnipeg sports for 47 years, which means she is old and probably should think about getting a life.

 

Hens in the Hockey House talk turkey about the Winnipeg Jets, Puck Finn, Twig Ehlers and Rink Rat Scheifele

Before my two Hens in the Hockey House put the bird in the oven for Christmas dinner, they’re talking turkey about the Winnipeg Jets. Take it away, ladies…

Question Lady: Finally, a chance to take a deep breath and chill. No hockey until Tuesday. Do you need the break as much as I do?

Answer Lady: Actually, there is hockey. The World Junior Championship starts on Boxing Day.

question-lady-and-answer-lady2Question Lady: You mean the “nobody cares except TSN tournament” don’t you?

Answer Lady: People care. Maybe not overseas, but we care in Canada. At least I think we do. I guess we’ll know by television ratings.

Question Lady: It’s hard to believe that Patrik Laine could be playing for Finland in that tournament. If defencemen and goaltenders in the National Hockey League can’t stop him, how much damage would he do playing against a bunch of kids?

Answer Lady: Puck Finn would be scary good. But so would all the other age-eligible players who are in the NHL. Connor McDavid and Mitch Marner could be playing for Canada. Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel, Zach Werenski and Matthew Tkachuk could be wearing the Stars and Stripes. Jesse Puljujarvi is another eligible Finn. There’s a lot of missing star power. It’ll be terrific hockey, but it’s watered down at the top end.

Question Lady: You surprised at how well Laine is doing in his rookie season with the Jets?

Answer Lady: Yes and no. I thought the over/under for Puck Finn was 20 goals. I just didn’t think he’d get there so soon. I thought he’d have an electric start, then go into a bit of a swoon. Hasn’t happened. Nineteen goals in 36 assignments is heady stuff. Everything about his game is lights-out impressive. Even his own goal—his selfie—was impressive. And I like his cockiness.

Question Lady: I think the Jets lead the league in selfies. Nikolaj Ehlers scored one, too.

Answer Lady: That was a goaltending gaffe. Michael Hutchinson went all Rip Van Winkle on the boys. Overtime is never a good time for a goalie to take a nap.

Question Lady: Who do you like more, Laine or Ehlers?

Answer Lady: That’s like asking me if I’d rather listen to Sinatra or Tony Bennett. They’re both brilliant. I kind of like Ehlers, though. I call him Twig because that’s how he’s built. He was snake-bit around the net for the longest time, but he discovered his goal-scoring mojo just before the break. Twig is a quick-strike kind of guy. He’s now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t fast. It wouldn’t surprise me if he finished the season with more points than his linemates, Puck Finn and Rink Rat Scheifele. Remember that. You heard it here first.

Question Lady: The question is, how long will head coach Paul Maurice keep those three together?

Answer Lady: Sometimes I think Maurice is a bit of a basket case. He keeps trying to fix what isn’t broken. The Lickety-Split Line should stay together until the end of time, but I’m sure Maurice will go into his street busker routine shortly after the Christmas break and start juggling his forwards with no rhyme or reason.

Paul Maurice
Paul Maurice, aka Mr. .500.

Question Lady: Could that explain why Maurice is a career .500 coach?

Answer Lady: Player deployment is probably one of the reasons.

Question Lady: There’s been plenty of speculation about Maurice’s future with the Jets. Do you think he should be fired?

Answer Lady: No. Not now. This season is Maurice’s mulligan. But going forward into next season, I agree with what TSN analyst Craig Button said about coach PoMo the other day—“(He) is going to have to do a much better job.” Maurice needs to up his game. But can a career .500 coach who’s made the playoffs only five times in 18 seasons do that? I have my doubts. Any lump on a bar stool can tell you that the Lickety-Split Line should never be torn apart, but, as sure as Don Cherry likes good Canadian beer, Maurice will be fiddle farting around with those three lads inside a fortnight.

Question Lady: Fiddle farting isn’t a very lady-like term, my dear.

Answer Lady: Sorry, but that’s what Maurice does. He fiddle farts.

Question Lady: What’s the biggest disappointment with the Jets to date?

Answer Lady: Mathieu Perreault. I mean, two goals and seven points? That’s what $4.5 million buys you these days? I realize he isn’t pulling in that much coin right now, but that’s his sticker price next season and $4 mill per annum after that. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff clearly had a moment of madness when he agreed to that deal. Either that or Perreault has incriminating photos. Chevy gave the guy a four-year extension at that inflated wage for what? Perreault has never had a 20-goal season. He only scored nine goals in 2015-16. He’s brittle…he’s never played a full, 82-game season. Perreault is probably the most overpaid worker in the NHL. I’m guessing Chevy would probably like a do-over on that contract. Or maybe he’s hoping the Las Vegas expansion franchise will take that fat-cat contract off the Jets’ books next summer.

Question Lady: What’s your take on Dustin Byfuglien?

Answer Lady: What can I say that hasn’t already been said? One minute he’s a jaw-dropping delight, the next he’s back to his d’oh boy ways. Buff is Buff. An asset and a liability. I don’t drink the True North Kool-Aid, so I can take him or leave him.

Question Lady: You don’t buy into the Jets’ heavy schedule as an excuse, do you?

Connor Hellebuyck
Connor Hellebuyck

Answer Lady: Seven NHL teams have played 36 games. Six of them are in a playoff position at the Christmas break. The only team below the line is Winnipeg. Conclusion: The schedule as an excuse is lame. You know why the Jets are on the outside looking in right now? Coaching, inconsistent play, dumb penalties and goaltending.

Question Lady: You include goaltending among the flaws?

Answer Lady: It’s been moderate. Hutchinson and Connor Hellebuyck need to be better. We already knew that Hutchinson wasn’t a No. 1 ‘tender, so Hellebuyck was the mystery. He’s had his moments. I suppose the jury is still out, but I don’t see him as a No. 1. It’s one of those things I’d like to be wrong about, but I don’t believe the Jets braintrust recognizes talent in the blue paint.

Question Lady: What do you expect during the back half of the season?

Answer Lady: Much of the same. It’s a toilet-seat season—up and down, up and down. This Jets outfit is very much like big Buff’s game. Bad and brilliant.

Question Lady: Still think they’ll miss the playoffs?

Answer Lady: Yup. But I’ll enjoy watching Puck Finn, Twig and Rink Rat do their thing. If, that is, Maurice lets them.

Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for 46 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit. She is most proud of her Q Award, presented in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour in 2015.