Dave Lozo's Bag Skate: Winnipeg Jets at a Crossroads with Kane, Pavelec

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Dave Lozo's Bag Skate: Winnipeg Jets at a Crossroads with Kane, Pavelec
Paul Sancya

Fair or not, teams in a small market or a relatively unattractive market have a thinner margin for error than teams in a big market or what is considered a much more attractive market. 

Those errors can be just about anything—asset management, the contracts given to players or how players are treated by the organization or local media can make or break that franchise.

This is a lesson that appears to have been lost on the Winnipeg Jets.

In September 2012, the Jets signed Evander Kane to a six-year, $31.5 million contract, a commitment that was driven partially by his 30-goal season as a 20-year-old in 2011-12 and the impending expiration of a collective bargaining agreement before the lockout. Whatever the motivation to lock up Kane, the Jets made the conscious decision to hitch their wagon to him for a very long time.

Mark Buckner/Getty Images

Less than two years later, an interim coach who may not be back for the 2014-15 season decided to make Kane a healthy scratch for a game in Toronto. As per usual, the Jets have nothing to play for at this point in the season, so deciding to scratch a highly paid and highly talented player signed through 2017-18 was quite the statement by coach Paul Maurice and the organization at large.

The contract and healthy scratch are bookends around what has been a tumultuous and somewhat unfair 19 months for one of the game's bright young stars.

Not long after Kane signed his six-year deal, the Winnipeg media seized on a photo of Kane taken in Las Vegas during the lockout. He was on a balcony holding bricks of money, which was somehow offensive to the delicate sensibilities of hockey reporters.

Three months after Kane signed his contract, Gary Lawless of the Winnipeg Free Press wrote about how he was a bad fit with the organization.

Two months later, Kane was back on the road to superstardom.

In April 2013, Kane was not listed among Ed Tait's 10 problems that needed fixing with the Jets. Neither was Ondrej Pavelec, but that's for later in this space.

In October 2013, Kane was one of the leaders and examples for other players to follow.

In February, Tait again listed 10 things the Jets must correct. Once again, Kane was not one of those problems, but at least this time Pavelec was mentioned.

Last week, Kane was again worthy trade bait.

Kane was then made a healthy scratch Saturday, and it was revealed Monday it was because he was late for a team function.

Now imagine all that from Kane's perspective. He's a 22-year-old who has lost 18 games this season due to four separate injuries, and his name is either being dragged through the mud or heaped with praise in the media. Very rarely does anyone come to his defense, so when it's time to stand in front of the media and answer questions about not playing in Toronto, it shouldn't be surprising when Kane is standoffish to nearly every question.

Jonathan Kozub/Getty Images

Man, I wonder why Kane had an attitude in that scrum.

It's naive to think of this as only a Kane problem; it's the type of problem that can hinder an organization like the Jets.

The average temperature in Winnipeg is generally below 40 degrees Fahrenheit for the duration of the hockey season. It's a small town. It's a team that hasn't reached the playoffs in three years in Winnipeg and has only gone to the postseason once in the history of the franchise, in 2007 when it was still the Atlanta Thrashers.

It's hard enough to attract quality free agents or get players to waive no-trade clauses to come to a place like that without being an organization with a reputation for poor treatment of star players or a city whose media will turn on you over a harmless picture taken in Las Vegas. Drafting your elite talent is of the utmost importance for teams like the Jets, and they did that with Kane, and now it seems he's being run out of town.

The argument can be made that's an inaccurate portrayal of the organization and the media, but that is clearly the perception of Winnipeg as a team and a market. And perception is reality. Players talk to each other, and if players believe that to be true, they will be even more hesitant to go to a team that isn't anywhere close to being a Stanley Cup contender.

The treatment from the media is not at the top of a free agent's list when deciding where to play, but it is most definitely on that list as a consideration.

Behind-the-scenes stuff aside, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff marrying himself to Pavelec in the form of a five-year, $19.5 million contract in June 2012 has been just as destructive, if not more. He was a terrible goaltender before he inked the contract, as he had a 2.91/.906 split in the season prior to signing the deal. He's been even worse in the two years since, going 2.80/.905 last year and delivering a 3.01/.901 in 57 games this season.

There are three years remaining on the contract, and if the Jets don't buy it out after this season, they better sign a goaltender capable of at least posting a league-average save percentage. Since 2011-12, Pavelec has the lowest save percentage of any goaltender who has played at least 100 games.

Defenders of Pavelec will always cite the defense in front of the goaltender being particularly bad, which is the type of thing fans of teams with poor goaltending do ad nauseam. But a look at the numbers over the past three seasons shows that the Jets defense gets a bad rap, one that is exacerbated by the man in net.

Ryan Lambert from Puck Daddy dug up this great fact about the Jets since 2011-12.

The Jets have hardly been under siege during the past three seasons, yet Pavelec can't even crack a .910 save percentage. Despite moving to the West, the Jets have put forth an NHL .500 record this season. If they had a league-average goaltender instead of literally the worst goaltender of the past three seasons, there's a good chance they'd be a wild-card team or at least in the mix this week.

Pavelec's contract is one with far-reaching ramifications. For one, it means Pavelec is on the team, which means the team is bad, which means the team isn't appealing to quality free agents, which can help a team get better. It's a gigantic swing and miss by the Jets, a team that can't afford to miss that badly on what was an obviously bad contract at the time it came to fruition. The Jets are perceived to be this very bad team, but a lot of that has to do with employing Pavelec to play hockey games for them on a regular basis now and the next three seasons.

Marianne Helm/Getty Images

The other situation it has caused, at least indirectly, is the strange lack of criticism Pavelec has received over the years. Pavelec was arrested for drunk driving a month before signing his contract and hid it from the team during negotiations. That seems like a pretty big sign of immaturity for a young player who just signed a big contract and worthy of journalistic scorn, but clearly is not on the same level as the dastardly act of being photographed with...GASP!...money!

Save Percentage since 2011-12, minimum 100 games
Player Save Pct. Contract status after this season
1. Tuukka Rask .930 Seven years, $49 million
2. Cory Schneider .927 One year, $4 million
3. Henrik Lundqvist .925 Seven years, $59.5 million
27. Ilya Bryzgalov .907 Unrestricted free agent
28. Martin Brodeur .904 Unrestricted free agent
29. Ondrej Pavelec .904 Three years, $11.7 million

Hockey-Reference.com, CapGeek.com

There's plenty to criticize in Winnipeg, yet it seems Kane is the one constantly in the cross hairs. Why wouldn't he want a fresh start somewhere else?

Again, if you're a player on the outside looking into Winnipeg and everything about the team, why would you bother unless you're a second- or third-tier free agent who needs to put food on the table and would like to avoid doing so by playing in Europe? If you're an elite player, why would you sign a lengthy contract with the Jets to guarantee you will play three years in a freezing cold place with a goaltender who couldn't stop pop-ups with an ad blocker?

The Jets aren't far off from being a pretty decent team. They have a strong nucleus and some quality young talent on the cusp of blossoming. Mending fences with Kane and finding a new starting goaltender—Ryan Miller, Jonas Hiller, Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak are just some of the upgrades who will be UFAs this summer—could allow the Jets to take the next step toward becoming a playoff team.

This is an organization that has developed a poor reputation since arriving in Winnipeg, and the outcome of the Kane and Pavelec situations will go a long way toward either reshaping or reaffirming how people perceive the club, which will determine its long-term success.

 

FOUR LETTERS

(If you'd like to ask a question for the weekly mailbag, you can reach me via email at dave111177@gmail.com, fire your query at me via Twitter at @DaveLozo or leave a question in the comments section for next week.)

I am of the belief that the Kings would beat either the Ducks or Sharks in the first round, but the Sharks would be a far more difficult opponent. Talk all you want about Caps-Penguins or Leafs-Canadiens, but Sharks-Kings is by far the most intense rivalry in the NHL. These two teams would pound the bejesus out of each other for two weeks, and the winner of the series would probably be too weak to win more than one more round.

The Ducks are trending in 2013-14 in a very similar way to what they did a year ago: great start, middling finish, poor possession numbers the whole way. They were the No. 2 seed in the West in 2013 and lost in the first round in seven games to the Red Wings; they'd probably suffer the same fate if they faced the Kings this year, but that's not looking like it would be the case.

The Sharks would probably need Antti Niemi to raise his game from what he's been delivering of late. In his past four starts, he has an .892 save percentage, which won't come close to getting it done with Jonathan Quick at the other end of the ice. It would also help if the Sharks could convert on the power play at about a 20-25 percent clip, but with referees swallowing whistles in the playoffs, the chances of that seem slim.

As long as Drew Doughty is healthy and Quick is on top of his game, the Kings should handle either opponent, although the Sharks would probably push the series to six games, maybe even seven.

I thought he received far too much praise for the Lightning's 2010-11 season, seeing as how most of the pieces for that run to the Eastern Conference Final were already in place. People were touting him for General Manager of the Year, which I thought was more of a product of the warm feelings he brought people as a player and less about the job he had done that year.

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Trading two second-round picks and a third-round pick for Anders Lindback in 2012 hasn't worked out at all, either. 

But I think he's done a great job the past 12 months: He dealt Cory Conacher for Ben Bishop, who could be a Vezina finalist this year; he bought out Vinny Lecavalier and replaced him with Valtteri Filppula, who is tied for the team lead in scoring with 25 goals and 57 points in 74 games; he hired Jon Cooper to take over for Guy Boucher and Cooper could win the Jack Adams Award; and with Martin St. Louis holding his breath in protest for being left off Team Canada, Yzerman turned him into Ryan Callahan and potentially two, but at least one, first-round picks when the Rangers were his only trade partner.

In 2011, Yzerman drafted Ondrej Palat and signed Tyler Johnson as an undrafted free agent. Palat and Johnson are the Lightning's first- and fourth-leading scorers, respectively.

Not only has Yzerman earned his extension, but he should also be one of the finalists for General Manager of the Year.

No, Devils coach Peter DeBoer does not hate Swedes. When your favorite player or team isn't receiving the playing time or praise you feel it deserves, 99 times out of 100 it's not because someone holds a personal bias against it. 

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Mattias Tedenby simply wasn't very good, and he was also benched and scratched a lot when Jacques Lemaire was coach. His work ethic and attitude were questioned. He was poor defensively, and unless you're a generational talent as a rookie, that's not going to fly with any coach in the NHL.

Jacob Josefson has had his development set back by a lot of injuries. He just hasn't been very good this season, and yeah, some of that has to do with his inability to get in the lineup, which is the only way he can get better, but he can't get in the lineup because he's been injured so much. It's an unfortunate Catch-22.

Adam Larsson, on the other hand, I can't figure out. I've watched a lot of Jon Merrill, a player DeBoer absolutely loves, and I don't see what's so special there. I think he'll be a solid NHL defenseman, sure, but DeBoer loves him. I also don't get the point of playing 30-year-old Peter Harrold over Larsson, either. The Devils have had a lot of injuries to their defensemen this year, and Larsson has rarely gotten the call since he was sent down to the AHL in November.

Larsson is an RFA this summer and seems like a potential trade target as long as DeBoer is back next season, which he should be. The way the Devils have handled the No. 4 pick in the 2011 draft can be fairly described as baffling.

Hi Dave!

The NHL is always looking for rules to get more offense. What do you think is the best way to do this? Call more penalties and get more power plays? 

Jason

I've had an idea for a while that would be a quick fix and would not even involve a rule change, more of a rule adjustment. It would simply require referees to call a certain penalty to the letter of the law with no exceptions, which, now that I think about it, is asking a lot.

I would call NHL Rule 63.2 as strictly as possible, with the caveat that I'd take out the second paragraph here completely: 

63.2 Minor Penalty - A minor penalty shall be imposed on any player, including the goalkeeper, who holds, freezes or plays the puck with his stick, skates or body in such a manner as to deliberately cause a stoppage of play. With regard to a goalkeeper, this rule applies outside of his goal crease area.

If a goalkeeper comes out of his crease to 'cut down the angle' on a shot and after making the save covers the puck, this shall be legal. If the goalkeeper races out of his crease in an attempt to beat the attacking player to the puck and instead of playing the puck jumps on the puck causing a stoppage of play, this shall be a minor penalty for delay of game.

The bold is my emphasis. Some people don't realize that a goalie isn't allowed to cover the puck unless part of his body is touching the crease, unless he is in the act of playing aggressively and the puck sticks to him when stopping a shot. If referees began calling two-minute minors whenever this happened, in my opinion, a few things would happen:

Brian Babineau/Getty Images

1. More penalties would be called, which would lead to more power plays, which would lead to more goals.

2. Superaggressive goaltenders would be forced to stay in their crease in almost every situation, which would lead to more goals.

3. Goaltenders who stop a shot with no rebound and are outside the crease will have to drop the puck back into play, which would lead to more goals.

Bigger equipment, coupled with goaltenders making saves two feet outside the crease, is a big reason for fewer goals being scored. By forcing goaltenders back into their nets, there would be more offense, and it wouldn't come at the expense of making the game unsafe for goaltenders. No one is saying Tim Thomas or Jonathan Quick can't be three feet out of the net when making a save, but they can't cover the puck after doing so.

 

Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.

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