Despite move, more of the same for Jets

The move of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg, confirmed at the start of the 2011 Stanley Cup finals, was heralded (mostly in Canada, of course) as a cause for rejoicing, a return of a once-proud NHL franchise from a southern wasteland to its rightful place on the snowy prairie.

How's that move working out so far?

On Sunday, the moribund Jets fired coach Claude Noel, who took over after the team's move in the summer of 2011 and failed to nudge the Jets appreciably closer to the playoffs than when they were playing to spotty crowds at Philips Arena in downtown Atlanta, where they managed to make the postseason just once in a dozen years, winning exactly zero playoff games.

Sure, you can blame former Atlanta GM Don Waddell and the wildly dysfunctional ownership group in Atlanta -- which allowed a glorious opportunity to join franchises such as Dallas and San Jose in building a viable hockey culture in a nontraditional place to simply fall to pieces -- for the ills that continue to plague the franchise in snowy Winnipeg.

It's a convenient talking point, even if it's no longer true.

The reality is that the failures of this team can no longer be pinned on whatever earlier failures marked the team's time in Atlanta. And the longer this team spins its wheels, the longer it continues to ice a team that does not compete often enough and cannot master the fundamentals of playing competitive hockey, especially now that it is playing big-boy hockey in the Western Conference, this move back to Winnipeg inches closer and closer to colossal failure.

Sure, fans still flock to the tiny MTS Centre in downtown Winnipeg, but the honeymoon is long over, as the frequent boos from the stands and the sharp questions asked in the city's competitive media market attest.

GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, who took the job after apprenticing with the Chicago Blackhawks, has played the first card in trying to reverse the tidal wave of mediocrity that threatens this team's future by firing Noel.

The general pattern for young GMs in the NHL is that you get one mulligan when it comes to coaching hires. Hard to imagine that if veteran bench boss Paul Maurice, named Sunday to replace Noel, doesn't get the job done, the next card dealt will have Cheveldayoff in the hand.

For Maurice, whose history includes guiding overachieving teams in Carolina to the 2002 Stanley Cup finals and the 2009 Eastern Conference finals but who twice failed to get the Toronto Maple Leafs into the postseason dance, the bar has been set impossibly low in terms of showing improvement.

But this isn't about improving a Jets team that ranks 25th in goals against, pretty standard for the history of this franchise, ranks 25th on the power play and has lost five straight games during which it's been outscored 24-14.

That's small-picture stuff, and we're guessing that Maurice will be able to effect that kind of short-term change.

But what's at stake is so much bigger, especially given that this season is already a write-off with the Jets 10 points back of the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference.

Moving a franchise to Winnipeg brought with it inherent risks.

Like Edmonton or smaller markets with little recent history of success (sorry, Wayne Gretzky et al was so long ago), the path to viability is clearly marked with little margin for error. Draft shrewdly, develop properly, hire good hockey people up and down the organization, including the coaching staff, and hope that as your team grows and matures and takes steps forward you become the kind of place other good hockey players and people will be drawn to.

We've seen the model happen for years in Detroit and more recently in Chicago and Pittsburgh.

But fail to hit those markers, draft poorly or make poor decisions in handing out long-term deals and that plan falls to pieces in a hurry. Make mistakes and as an organization you're forced to overpay for free agents that would rather be somewhere else or rush young players into roles they're not equipped to handle and the circle of failure spins and spins.

The Jets have failed in many ways to step beyond that cycle in their brief time in Winnipeg.

Their lineup boasts too many castoffs, players who could not fit in with better teams, players such as Devin Setoguchi, the one-time 30-goal scorer in San Jose who wore out his welcome after moving to Minnesota and now has seven goals for the Jets. The oft-traded Olli Jokinen is another player seemingly taking up space on the Jets roster, on pace for fewer than 20 goals.

In recent months, Cheveldayoff has rolled the dice, locking up young pieces of the Jets' convoluted puzzle to long-term deals, hoping they will form the nucleus of what this franchise has never produced: a consistent playoff team.

But already there are serious question marks about those decisions.

Zach Bogosian, the third overall pick in 2008, has failed to develop into anything approaching that lofty draft selection but was curiously inked to a long-term deal that carries through the 2019-20 season with an annual cap hit of $5.142 million.

Dustin Byfuglien had been moved to forward after compiling a minus-17 playing on the blue line. He still has two more years remaining on a contract that carries a $5.2 million cap hit.

Perhaps the biggest question mark is in goal, where Ondrej Pavelec, once thought to be the heir apparent to Kari Lehtonen as franchise netminder, has been an enigma at best and a disaster at worst. He is signed through 2016-17 with a cap hit of $3.9 million. Now, is the fact Pavelec is carrying an .898 save percentage and 3.14 GAA a function of the poor defense played in front of him or simply the fact he is no better than a Grade B goaltender?

Those are questions Maurice will have to come to grips with in the coming days.

It's not all doom and gloom, though.

Jacob Trouba is going to be a special player on defense. Mark Scheifele, another top prospect, has been nurtured instead of rushed. Other promising prospects are in the pipeline.

Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little have justified, at least in part, their contract extensions. Andrew Ladd is a consummate pro and wise choice as team captain, although this team still suffers from a lack of a solid leadership core that can help arrest the skids that ruin playoff hopes, as this current one has done for the Jets.

Evander Kane is a good player, although whether he'll ever become the kind of dominant player offensively this team needs has yet to be seen.

There are pieces in place.

So maybe this coaching change is the catalyst to that long-awaited turning of the corner, which has eluded this franchise whether it has courted sunburn or frostbite.

But over the years, fans both north and south have been fed a steady diet of such maybes and found it entirely wanting.