On July 3, the Winnipeg Jets officially announced that Rick Bowness would take over as the team’s next head coach, as he was signed to a two-year, $2.5 million per year contract. Given the conditions of the contract, it seems as though he may not have much time to impress the management group. Unfortunately, he has his work cut out for him, as the team finished last season with plenty of issues that need to be addressed immediately.
Some challenges for Bowness are hard to predict, as the team may look vastly different on opening night. After Paul Maurice resigned, Dave Lowry was promoted to be the interim head coach for the remainder of the 2021-22 season. The Jets’ season fell apart down the stretch, as the team lacked structure and players began to look disengaged. To return to the playoffs and have success throughout his contract, he will have to address these three challenges facing the team:
1. Holding Jets Accountable / Fixing Locker Room Issues
As the team started to fall in the standings, they lost more and more structure in their play. Lowry was unable to keep the locker room motivated, and they slid out of a playoff spot as a result. Bowness is known to run a good locker room, and that will help what is currently one of the Jets’ biggest weaknesses, as players such as Paul Stastny and Pierre-Luc Dubois alluded to the lack of accountability as the season went on. He will have to instill trust in his players by providing a system in which they can thrive.
Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele are the longest-tenured Jets, and they represent two-thirds of the team’s leadership group. If the team is to have any success under a new coaching staff, those players will have to buy into what’s being preached. If the leaders of the team continue to show lackluster efforts under a new regime, Bowness’ time as head coach may be short-lived. Creating a good culture within the locker room should lead to a team that competes every night, no matter the score. Achieving that will be his biggest challenge.
2. Developing the Jets’ Young Core During Transition Phase
The Jets are in a transition phase as an organization. Since they made it to the Western Conference Final in the 2017-18 season, the organization has been on a slow decline and they’re close to hitting rock bottom. There’s only one way to change direction as an organization and that’s by integrating their top prospects into the lineup.
Cole Perfetti, Ville Heinola, and Dylan Samberg are all prospects who could get significant minutes with the big club next season. These players are the future of the franchise, and the management group knows that. By hiring Bowness, they’re showing trust that he is the one to bridge the gap from them being prospects to becoming full-time NHL players. The next two seasons are an essential time for the team, as the prospects will have to be effective to return to the success they enjoyed in 2017-18.
Perfetti had seven points in 18 games last season for the Jets and will look to break out this season under a new coaching staff. Heinola got his chance at the NHL level last season and showed that he belonged. Bowness’ system favours defencemen that can step up and force dump-ins at the blue-line, but are still fast and agile enough to retrieve the puck and contribute to a clean zone exit. His strengths play well into the system that will be introduced, similar to how Miro Heiskanen and John Klingberg thrived during Bowness’ time with the Dallas Stars.
3. Take a Load off of Connor Hellebuyck’s Shoulders
According to Naturalstattrick.com, Connor Hellebuyck has faced the most shots against over the past three seasons. From 2019-20 to 2021-22, he’s faced 5,285 shots against; Andrei Vaselevskiy comes in second in that category with 4,704 shots faced.
The 29-year-old goaltender is approaching the back half of his career and is coming off of his worst statistical season of the past four years. This is a cause for concern for management, who have invested plenty of assets trying to maximize their contention window while Hellebuyck is still in his prime.
Bowness’ system is very similar to the one that coach Barry Trotz runs, where all five players are working in the defensive zone to keep shots and high-danger chances at a minimum. This is a big change from the past couple of years when the Jets system has promoted more “high-event” hockey. The structure they played promoted that both teams would hit 35 shots and score at least five goals. Under this new system, the team should be able to limit the number of high-danger chances their star goaltender faces, and prolong his elite career.
If Bowness can take care of these three challenges, he will be well on his way to earning another contract as the head coach. The Jets were all in on Trotz, but he has the opportunity to prove that he is the better candidate. The roster he’ll be working with won’t be known until after free agency, but he could be the coach to bring the Jets back to the playoffs in 2022-23.