Opinion

The Winnipeg Jets must feel like the naughty little boy who's been grounded by his parents, forced to gaze sadly out the window at all his friends playing outside.

The Winnipeg Jets must feel like the naughty little boy who's been grounded by his parents, forced to gaze sadly out the window at all his friends playing outside.

After all, a team badly in need of some blue-line help has stood by as a flurry of activity happens around them. Ryan Ellis, Philippe Myers, Ryan Graves, Nick Leddy, Jamie Oleksiak, Adam Larsson, Shayne Gostisbehere, Rasmus Ristolainen, Robert Hagg and Seth Jones have all found new hockey homes in the past week alone via signings and trades.

Several of those defencemen — Ellis, Graves, Leddy, Oleksiak, Larsson and Jones for sure — are exactly what the organization could use. And yet Kevin Cheveldayoff and company were basically told to go to their room and think about what they've done while everyone else gets to have fun.

Jamie Oleksiak, a defenseman from the Dallas Stars, is introduced as a new player with the Seattle Kraken NHL hockey team, Wednesday. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

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Jamie Oleksiak, a defenseman from the Dallas Stars, is introduced as a new player with the Seattle Kraken NHL hockey team, Wednesday. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

But here's the thing: The only sin committed by the Jets is the fact they happen to be based in the Great White North, which is increasingly becoming an issue when it comes to trying to land big names either through trades or free agency.

And it means having to battle an invisible opponent which makes the quest to win a Stanley Cup an even bigger challenge. Misery loves company, too, with the other six Canadian teams facing similar issues. You'll note none of the above players landed in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa or Montreal either.

Edmonton Oilers' Adam Larsson agreed to terms with Seattle on a $16 million, four-year contract. (AP Photo/Nick Didlick, File)

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Edmonton Oilers' Adam Larsson agreed to terms with Seattle on a $16 million, four-year contract. (AP Photo/Nick Didlick, File)

In fact, Larsson took the first exit he out of the country as soon as he became an unrestricted free agent this summer, bidding farewell to Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl in favour of signing a deal with the expansion Seattle Kraken, reportedly for the same money the Oilers were offering. Ouch.

Sure, Duncan Keith was shipped from Chicago to Edmonton earlier this month, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson went from Arizona to Vancouver as part of a blockbuster deal on Friday. But both of those players actually underline the difficulty up here, as they are past their prime and carrying substantial salaries their previous teams were all-too-happy to shed.

In a Sportsnet blog Thursday night, NHL insider Elliotte Friedman shared an interesting nugget from an unnamed general manager, one that aligns with similar rumblings passed on to me from various player agents and league sources.

The Chicago Blackhawks traded veteran defenceman Duncan Keith to the Edmonton Oilers. (Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

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The Chicago Blackhawks traded veteran defenceman Duncan Keith to the Edmonton Oilers. (Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

"He's hearing more and more from players that they prefer not to play in Canada," Friedman wrote. Taxes, tighter pandemic restrictions and social media were all cited as factors.

For Exhibit A of the cesspool that the Internet can be, I refer you to the ugly vitriol sent the way of Mark Scheifele's family in the days after he blew up Montreal's Jake Evans with a hit in the opening game of their playoff series. Scheifele was practically in tears days later as he pleaded for sanity from an angry mob of anonymous keyboard warriors.

Or, simply scan through some of the replies to my Tweets regarding anything to do with the Jets.

The Mark Scheifele hit on Montreal Canadiens' Jake Evans during the opening game of their playoff series that garnered Scheifele plenty of scorn on social media. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/John Woods

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The Mark Scheifele hit on Montreal Canadiens' Jake Evans during the opening game of their playoff series that garnered Scheifele plenty of scorn on social media. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/John Woods

Not every player has a say in where they go, of course. But those with no-trade clauses frequently list Winnipeg, and other Canadian markets, on their no-fly zone. Unless a player has plenty of term left, and no control of their next destination, potential deals can suffer a quick and painful death. And when it comes to unrestricted free agents who are in high demand, unless a team like the Jets is willing to massively overpay, they are often out of the running simply by default.

Yes, all 32 teams have the same salary cap to work with, including an US$81.5 million ceiling. But the take-home pay on a US$5 million wage looks a heck of a lot different in Manitoba than it does in places like Nevada, Texas and Florida. And that's not even scratching the surface of the other amenities, including winter weather, those places can offer.

I probably don't need to remind you it's been 28 long years, and counting, since the Stanley Cup was claimed by a Canadian club.

I probably don't need to remind you it's been 28 long years, and counting, since the Stanley Cup was claimed by a Canadian club. Since Montreal won it all back in 1993, only Vancouver (1994 and 2011), Calgary (2004), Edmonton (2006), Ottawa (2007) and Montreal (2021) have even managed to reach the Final, which they all lost.

It's not for a lack of trying, considering these are hockey-mad markets starved for success. But this uneven playing field places even greater emphasis on the draft and develop model, which we're reminded of again this weekend through the annual NHL entry draft where the Jets will be adding to their existing prospect depth. Cheveldayoff and his staff have done an impressive job in that department over the past decade, not only in identifying future core pieces but then managing to keep them around long-term.

Winnipeg's Vezina-winning goaltender Connor Hellebuyck is a product of the Jets draft-and-develop system. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Ryan Remiorz

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Winnipeg's Vezina-winning goaltender Connor Hellebuyck is a product of the Jets draft-and-develop system. THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES/Ryan Remiorz

From Connor Hellebuyck in goal, to Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Adam Lowry and, hopefully, current restricted free agent Andrew Copp up front, to Josh Morrissey on the blue-line, the majority of Winnipeg's best players have followed that blueprint. The internal hope is that players like Ville Heinola, Dylan Samberg and Cole Perfetti can keep that going. Only Blake Wheeler, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Neal Pionk and Dylan DeMelo came via trades.

This is important to keep in mind as we head towards the start of free agency next Wednesday, where Cheveldayoff will be looking to add a piece or two. Dougie Hamilton is the prized impact defencemen currently on the market, but I don’t expect to see him end up in Canada. And Ryan Suter, a native of Minnesota just bought out by the Wild, is said to be considering signing with a handful of U.S. clubs.

UFA defenceman David Savard is said to be open to the possibility of signing with a Canadian team. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

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UFA defenceman David Savard is said to be open to the possibility of signing with a Canadian team. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Knock me over with a feather.

The more likely scenario is being forced to settle for a lower-tier player or two, which is why you're more likely to see skaters such as Derek Forbort (free agency last summer) and Jordie Benn (deadline trade last season) brought in to the fold.

There are occasional exceptions, of course, and I was happy to see one other little piece of information in Friedman's scribblings. He noted that UFA David Savard, fresh off winning a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay, is "more than willing than some of his peers to consider Canadian destinations."

Well, shucks. He tolerates us. He really tolerates us.

It likely helps that the 30-year-old is from Quebec. But if that's the case, the Jets — who looked at Savard at the trade deadline in April but were scared away by the steep price Columbus was demanding — should be aggressive on that front. Same goes for another UFA blue-liner in Travis Hamonic, the pride of St. Malo, who would certainly embrace playing in his home province.

No, they may not be the splash that some fans are hoping for. But when the biggest fish are usually choosing to go swimming down south, it can leave teams like the Jets struggling to keep their head above water while they wade in the shallow end of the talent pool.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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