The Winnipeg Jets are going to be heavily scrutinized in 2022-23 as they attempt to avoid another lost season and rediscover success.
Three players in particular will be under the microscope of newly-minted head coach Rick Bowness and his coaching staff, the media, and of course, the fans.
Many expected GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to trade defenseman Brenden Dillon to free up cap space and open a slot for a prospect on the log-jammed blue line. That didn’t end up happening and Dillon will be an everyday player again next season.
The veteran will come under increased scrutiny considering his contract carries an AAV of $3.9 million and he showed signs of regression in what was his first season with the Jets.
While he brought grit, physicality, and size to the defensive corp, he was not the Washington-Capitals-quality Dillion of seasons past. His skill at shutting down opponents took a step back, with his numbers across major statistical categories measuring the effectiveness of defensemen — CORSI, Fenwick, Shots For Percentage, Goals For Percentage, and High Danger Chance For Percentage — dipping noticeably from 2020-21.
If the 32-year-old is even slightly below average, bet on fans to advocate for him to be removed from the lineup and replaced by Ville Heinola or Dylan Samberg (if they don’t make the team anyway) or another promising and much-younger defenseman.
Pierre-Luc Dubois has been the most analyzed Jet — and perhaps the analyzed player in the entire NHL — since late June, and will continue to be scrutinized to an atomic level next season.
Dubois put Cheveldayoff and the Jets in a huge bind by making it known he does not want to sign long-term in Winnipeg and would rather test the open market as a UFA in 2024. The fact the other 30 teams know Dubois really only has one team on the brain to play for — his home province’s Montreal Canadiens — limits what the Jets can get for him in a trade. No matter what Cheveldayoff does in this situation, there’s no way they can come out a winner (unless there’s a massive change-of-heart on the part of the player and he decides to sign a lengthy contract after all.)
The 24-year-old, coming off an exceptional season where he scored 28 goals and added 32 assists for 60 points and was an absolute force up the middle, signed a one-year deal worth $6 million last month. This avoided a potentially messy holdout situation and bought more time for both sides to figure out what to do.
The best-case scenario is still that Dubois excels in 2022-23, even though many fans won’t be rooting for his success. While he was undoubtedly one of the hardest-working Jets last season, it’s hard to know how much effort he’ll give considering he’s already of the mind to leave. His media availability last month did nothing to clear up his dedication levels, although he said his comments about the Canadiens were blown up “times twenty.”
If Dubois plays well but the Jets underachieve again, they can trade him at the 2023 deadline to a Stanley Cup contender who doesn’t care that he won’t sign long-term with them, when his value will likely be the highest. If Dubois plays well and the Bowness-led Jets are in a playoff position, they can use him as an in-house rental.
Scheifele will be watched to see if under Bowness and company, he can transition back into being a team-first player.
The alternate captain enjoyed yet another strong offensive campaign in 2021-22, recording 29 goals and 41 assists for 70 points in 67 games. The offensive numbers, however, do not tell the whole story, as he had the worst defensive season of his career. The the shortcomings in his play and his lack of effort without the puck hurt the Jets too often.
Scheifele was a team-worst minus-17 and often displayed an unbecoming indifference in the defensive zone. Poor back-checking and glaring turnovers unfortunately became synonymous with his game.
Scheifele was rightly criticized, but rarely held to account for these deficiencies former head coach Paul Maurice and interim head coach Dave Lowry. His “me-first” attitude doesn’t seem like it is going to fly with the old-school Bowness, who said last month at an introductory press conference he has no problem disciplining or benching those who don’t fulfill their defensive responsibilities. “Because the team has to come first,” Bowness said. “And the players know who’s getting away with murder and who’s not getting away with it. So we have to hold everyone accountable at the same level. Everyone. Top to bottom.”
That comment seemed aimed directly at Scheifele, who has fallen out of favour with the fan base because of bombshell end-of-season comments he made that indicated he no longer wants to be a part of the Jets. Regardless, he’s under contract for two more seasons and his effort and ego levels will be monitored closely by all.