The Winnipeg Jets are through 20 games this season and have outperformed expectations, possessing a 13-6-1 record and sitting second in the Central Division.
Here, we’ll make 20 quick-hit observations about the team and their 2022-23 thus far.
1) Jets Are A Better Team Under Bowness
The Jets are a much tighter, hard-working, and likeable bunch under Rick Bowness than they were in the last three seasons under Paul Maurice. The players actually like each other and have cultivated a healthy dressing-room culture for the first time since the 2017-18 season. They even collaborated on a three-point pledge that dictates the behaviour needed to achieve success.
While they haven’t always played up to the stern Bowness’ high expectations or had success with his systems, the effort level is noticeably higher across the board and as a result, they are a more compelling squad. The “run-it-back” gamble — to hire a new coach to get more out of the same personnel that continually disappointed last season — was a big gamble by General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, but it’s paying off so far and if it continues to, Bowness will find himself a Jack Adams Award nominee.
2) Bowness Is Hugely Different From Maurice
It was already clear during preseason, but it’s even clearer now that Rick Bowness is nothing like Maurice. The stamp the new bench boss has put on the team in a short time is quite remarkable.
Bowness is open and honest about the team’s shortcomings. He doesn’t suffer fools, but treats his players with respect. He doesn’t have a veteran bias and gives youngsters opportunities. He expects everyone to be a leader in some way and to be united. He isn’t afraid to shake up the status quo if something strikes him as subpar.
All of this is a refreshing change from the previous regime, which did a disservice to its players with its outdated systems and made a talented-on-paper group less than the sum of its parts.
3) Jets Are Surviving Injury Adversity for Now
Making the Jets’ record even more impressive is they’ve had to deal with losing three players who began the season on the top nine for extended periods of time.
Nikolaj Ehlers has only played two games all season and will be out for at least another two months after having surgery to correct a sports hernia, Morgan Barron missed a month with a wrist injury, and Mason Appleton will be out until at least mid-January after wrist surgery.
4) Jets Have Relied on Interchangeability
Due to the amount of injury adversity thrown at them — and because Cheveldayoff has not made a trade to bolster the forward depth — the Jets have had to win by committee and rely on interchangeability. Bowness has kept the line blender working by necessity and has put trust in players to play outsized roles, including playing Appleton on the first line before he was injured and even deploying waiver-wire pickup Axel Jonsson-Fjallby in that role lately.
Veteran Sam Gagner has also played on the top and bottom six, similar to how Paul Stastny did over the two previous seasons. Gagner’s willingness to accept any assignment has been an asset.
The defensive pairings haven’t been set in stone either. Josh Morrissey has played with Neal Pionk and Dylan DeMelo, Pionk has played with Morrissey and Brenden Dillon, and Nate Schmidt has played with Dillon and Dylan Samberg.
“If you want to be a successful team in this league, the only way to do it through the whole 82-game season is like that, when everybody contributes,” Pierre-Luc Dubois said recently. “Some nights, some lines might contribute more offensively or defensively. For it to be sustainable, that’s how it’s going to have to look this year.”
5) Bottom Six Is Chipping In
The bottom six was a point of concern to begin the season, but it’s been better than first thought or advertised. The group, which currently includes Barron, David Gustafsson, Jonsson-Fjallby, Adam Lowry, and Saku Maenalanen, have done well at preventing opponent scoring chances and and have also played key roles on the much-improved penalty kill.
They’ve also chipped in some offence: Adam Lowry leads the bottom-six contingent with 12 points (four goals, eight assists) while Barron has five (one goal, four assists) and Maenalanen has four (three goals, one assist.)
Players who began the season in the AHL have scrapped to become regulars again or for the first time. Jansen Harkins was the odd man out after training camp, but took his demotion to the Manitoba Moose in stride. After recording nine points in nine games there, he was called back up and has three points (two goals, one assist) in seven games.
Mikey Eyssimont, who had a number of forwards ahead of him on the depth chart but led the Moose in scoring last season, has also impressed recently with his spark-plug play-style and high level of effort. Bowness actually scratched Gagner to keep Eyssimont, who has a goal and two assists in seven games, in the lineup.
6) Defence Is Bringing the Offence
One of Bowness’ key priorities this season was to get the blue line more involved in the offence and producing more points.
That plan is working so far. Jets defenders have produced an average of 2.35 points per game this season, up from 1.98 points per game last season.
7) Jets Have Beaten Some Good Teams
The Jets have not just beaten up on bottom feeders (although they’ve done some of that, too.)
They’ve triumphed over a number of squads in the 2023 Stanley Cup conversation, including the 2022 Eastern Conference Finalist New York Rangers, the defending champion Colorado Avalanche, the surprising Seattle Kraken, the relentless Carolina Hurricanes, and the Central Division-leading Dallas Stars (twice.)
8) Morrissey Is “Norris-sey”
Morrissey is thriving under Bowness, as he’s been allowed to jump up in the offence with regularity. Bowness told Morrissey over the summer that he expects him to be in the top-10 in Norris Trophy voting at the season’s end, and the 27-year-old has responded in a big way, playing in a revelatory fashion on both sides of the puck.
Morrissey’s previous point record is 37, and he’s poised to blow that mark out of the water. He has 23 points already, including four goals and two overtime winners. He’s been simply fantastic to watch and a huge part of their success.
9) Connor Is Fine
Kyle Connor has finally heated up after an ice-cold start. The sniper — who potted 47 goals last season and won the Lady Byng — had just two tallies in his first 14 games this season, but has six goals in his past six games. He’s also put his underrated playmaking skills on display, recording 12 assists.
Connor’s expected goals-for is 10.4 — and he’s hit the post or crossbar five times — so it’s been more a matter of being snakebitten and not finishing as well as usual, and less a matter of not generating chances. While Connor isn’t on pace to score as many goals as last season, he is still a valuable part of the offence and should end up near or at the point-per-game mark.
10) Dubois Is a Beast
If there’s a thick of things to be in, Pierre-Luc Dubois can be counted on to be in it.
The hulking power forward has been engaged on offence and engaged with the body — there’s no such thing as a low-event game for shift or the 24-year-old. He’s playing at a near-point-per-game pace with 10 goals and nine assists, has 28 hits, and is second in the NHL in penalties drawn with 15.
Dubois’ future in Winnipeg is questionable considering his offseason comments about playing for the Montreal Canadiens and his current one-year contract, but at the very least, he’ll be quite appealing as a trade chip at the deadline or as an in-house rental.
11) Perfetti Is Promising, But Inconsistent
Organizational top prospect Cole Perfetti is undeniably skilled, and has shown flashes of brilliance, but has been inconsistent in a top-six role.
The youngster’s path to sustained NHL success was never going to be a completely smooth one. He’s been quiet in some games and pushed around in others.
While the 2020 first-rounder has four goals and seven assists, he also recently went 10 games without a goal. Don’t worry, though — he’ll become more consistent as he gains more experience.
12) Wheeler Looks Re-Energized Without the “C”
After Bowness dropped a September bombshell by stripping Blake Wheeler of the captaincy he held for six seasons, many wondered how he’d take it.
So far, he’s taken it well and has actually looked re-energized now that all the responsibilities of a captain — which he wasn’t suited for and admitted weighed heavily on him — have been lifted off his shoulders.
The 36-year-old has seen his ice time drop — a necessity considering his regression over the past few seasons — but still has strong playmaking sensibilities and has put them on display with four goals and 12 assists. He recently became the franchise’s all-time leader in games played, passing Bryan Little for that Atlanta Thrashers/Jets 2.0 record by playing in his 844th game.
13) Hellebuyck is in Fine Form
Connor Hellebuyck has found his way back to fine form after a subpar 2021-22.
The 2020 Vezina Trophy Winner is making a push to win a second award, posting a 10-5-1 record, 2.43 GAA, .925 SV%, and two shutouts thus far. He is second in the NHL in Goalie Points Share and fourth in Goals Saved Above Average.
The Jets have played better defensively this season than last and that’s taken a little of the pressure off the netminder, who has been historically relied on too often to bail out shambolic D.
14) Rittich’s Been Serviceable
Hellebuyck’s new backup, offseason free-agent signing David Rittich, has done a serviceable job between the pipes as well.
It hasn’t exactly been a career resurgence for the 30-year-old who’s had some tough times over the past few seasons in Toronto and Nashville, but he’s been good enough when called upon, with a 3-1-0 record, 2.77 GAA, and .890 SV% in four starts.
Bowness said he wants to rest Hellebuyck every seven to 10 days, which is a good plan considering the number-one netminder was drastically overworked last season and dead-tired by March. More starts for Rittich will equal a fresher and sharper Hellebuyck for the stretch drive and possible playoffs.
15) Jets Penalty Kill Has Improved
The Jets’ penalty kill was a disaster last season, killing off just 75.0 per cent of their penalties and finishing 29th in the NHL.
This season, thanks to the coaching staff’s more aggressive strategy, it is operating at 81.1 per cent efficiency and currently sits in the NHL’s top 10.
The Jets have also been one of the NHL’s lesser-penalized teams, taking just 3.71 penalties per game. This has kept the penalty killers fresher for when they do have to jump into action.
16) Jets Are a Mess When Opponents Pull Their Goalie
While the Jets have done well down a man in a penalty-killing context, they’ve been awful when down six-on-five.
In the past week, they’ve allowed five goals with the opponent’s goaltender pulled: three against the Hurricanes in a stunning collapse, and two against the Stars (although the second Stars’ goal should not have counted and was the source of much controversy and debate over player safety.)
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Improving in this situation will come down to winning more clutch defensive-zone faceoffs, getting more bodies in front of shots, and executing on clearances.
17) Jets Have Been Great in Overtime
The Jets have been great in games that go beyond 60 minutes, and they’ve gone beyond 60 minutes quite frequently. They’ve posted a 6-1 record in seven three-on-three sessions, and have not had a game go to a shootout yet.
Bowness hasn’t always started with the skilled players one would expect — sometimes, he’s opted to trot out the grinders to begin three-on-three — but his instincts have been right more often than not.
18) Jets Haven’t Been Great in the Dot
The Jets have not done well on faceoffs, which are crucial for puck possession (stating the obvious, it’s better to start with the puck than without it.) They’re just 46.3 per cent in the dot, 28th in the NHL, and that number needs to get closer to 50.
19) Jets Reverse Retro Is Sharp and… Possibly Good Luck
The Jets’ new Reverse Retro uniform, which pays homage to the 1990s era, isn’t perfect but looks pretty sharp on the ice and is definitely an improvement over the previous incarnation.
They’ve also played well while wearing it, posting a 3-0-0 record in the threads thus far. They’ll wear them four more times this season.
20) Historically, Jets’ Position Means Playoffs Are Likely
Teams in a playoff position by U.S. Thanksgiving, which was on Thursday, have a roughly 75 per cent chance of making the playoffs.
There’s a long way to go, but this team seems more or less “legit” — the 27 points they’ve amassed through 20 games matches their best-ever start in Jets 2.0 history — and seems right on track to get back to the postseason dance.
Declan Schroeder is a 27-year-old communications specialist and freelance journalist in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He holds a diploma in Creative Communications with a major in journalism from Red River College and a bachelors in Rhetoric and Communications from the University of Winnipeg.
Deeply rooted in the city’s hockey culture, the original Jets skipped town when he was two and the 2.0 version came onto the scene when he was 17.