On July 1, 2022, the Winnipeg Jets introduced Rick Bowness as the new head coach of the franchise. He takes over for Paul Maurice and Dave Lowry, who have both found new jobs across the NHL. Not only was the head coach replaced, but every person on the coaching staff is new outside of goaltending coach Wade Flaherty.
The Jets were a disappointing 39-32-11 last season and finished 11th in the Western Conference standings. Bowness will be asked to take a playoff-level roster on paper and get the most out of them as they attempt to return to the postseason in 2022-23. Certain players will see more benefits than others from this big change and will see a big rise in production as a result.
This was a topic of conversation when Lowry took over, and now it’s coming up again under Bowness. When will a coach give Nikolaj Ehlers the playing time and usage he deserves? Ehlers finished last season with 55 points in 62 games but was extremely productive in his limited minutes.
Ehlers led the Jets last season in assists and points per 60 minutes, with 1.25 and 2.57 respectively. First-line minutes at even-strength and on the power play should be the bare minimum for a player of his talent, and whether or not the new coaching staff grants him those minutes is one of the biggest storylines to watch early in the 2022-23 season.
Ehlers dominates the transition game, which makes his play style compatible with all of the projected top-six forwards for the Jets. One player he has had success with in the past is Mark Scheifele. According to MoneyPuck.com, the team controlled 64.3 percent of the expected goals when those two were deployed alongside Paul Stastny last season.
Ehlers can ascend into the all-star forward conversation next season and is a serious threat to lead the team in points. However, all of his potential success hinges on whether or not the new coaching staff will trust him in high-leverage situations.
The Jets made an aggressive move last offseason acquiring Brenden Dillon on July 26, 2021, in exchange for two second-round picks from the Washington Capitals. Throughout the past season, his even-strength numbers fell as he was never able to find his footing under the previous coaching staff.
This card displays how Dillon has performed analytically over the past three seasons and shows a clear dip in both his defensive and total impact last season. He struggled to find chemistry alongside his partner Neal Pionk, whom he played the majority of his minutes with. Dillon is a physical defenceman whose strengths lie in winning puck battles and clearing the front of the net. Under the new regime, he likely returns to the consistent top-four defenceman that he has been for the bulk of his career.
Much like Ehlers, Dillon’s usage will be a storyline to track early in the season. Having known that Dillon and Pionk failed to gel last year, who will Bowness test out as his partner? 23-year-old Dylan Samberg is an interesting option to fill that role. For the 10 games in which they were paired together last season, Dillon and Samberg managed to control 57.3 percent of the expected goals at even-strength.
Is this the coaching staff that gives Ville Heinola a legitimate chance at the NHL level? And no, the times where he was called up and played alongside Nathan Beaulieu and Logan Stanley do not count. The former first-round pick of the 2019 NHL Draft has played only 25 games with the Jets in his career, and 12 of them came last year before they sent him back down to the Manitoba Moose despite showing improvement across every game he played.
Heinola’s style of play is often compared to Dallas Stars defenceman Miro Heiskanen, who has flourished under Bowness’ systems in his young and successful career so far. He scored 26 points in 27 playoff games when the Stars made a run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2019-20. While he cannot compete with those numbers, if Bowness can provide a system in which he can play to his strengths, he has the potential to become an offensive-minded top-four defenceman.
It is also time for the Jets’ leadership group to figure out whether or not Heinola is a bust, as playing 12 games every season is simply not a big enough sample size to see whether or not he fits in at the NHL level. What they need to do is play him with an established, high-level defence partner for an extended period of time. If he continues to struggle and fails to improve, then it may be time for the Jets to look to a future without Heinola’s services.
To put it lightly, Bowness has a very tall task ahead of him. Not only does he have to rally a locker room that just suffered their most disappointing season as a group, but the roster is projected to be worse heading into the 2022-23 season. Any team with Connor Hellebuyck in the net has a chance at the playoffs, and it will be Bowness’ job to get the best out of players who have struggled recently under the last two head coaches.
Connor Hrabchak is 20 years old, currently covering the Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets for The Hockey Writers, and is working towards completing his communications and media degree. He was born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He’s been watching hockey ever since they moved back to Winnipeg in 2011, and that has inspired him to write about hockey and attempt to make it into a full-time career.