With an unanticipated bombshell Friday announcement, the Winnipeg Jets became a team without a captain.
The team broke via Tweet yesterday morning that “a restructuring of the team’s leadership group ahead of 2022-23” will take place. They will go with a group of alternate captains to be determined at a later date.
The announcement was a diplomatic way of saying that now-former captain Blake Wheeler has been stripped of the ‘C’ he’s worn since 2016. It was also a clear message from new head coach Rick Bowness that the leadership group of the past isn’t the one to lead the Jets into the future.
Bowness Ignores Status-Quo; Shakes Up Leadership Core
Making the Jets the NHL’s seventh captain-less team is a gutsy move by Bowness, an old-school coach who is all about defensive responsibility and effort.
In early July, during his introductory press conference, the bench boss said he had no problem disciplining or benching players not giving their all. “If (a player) wants to win, he buys in. And if he doesn’t buy in, then you’re taking away his ice time…his ability to get all those points. Because the team has to come first,” he said.
It’s now clear Bowness’ philosophy carries over to awarding letters as well. Whoever wants something a little something extra on their sweater will have to earn it.
“We want the core group to grow a little bit so it’s not one face coming out here talking to the media every day when things aren’t going well,” Bowness said yesterday during a noontime press conference. “What we’re trying to do now is get more guys in that group to take that responsibility and be proud.”Rick Bowness
Despite being given no significant new personnel from GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to work with, Bowness needed to make a mark and distinguish himself from his predecessors. Stripping Wheeler and giving new players a chance to stand up as leaders certainly does that.
“We’re changing,” Bowness said. “That’s what we’re doing. We changed the coaching, we’re going to change the way we play. We’re changing the way we do things. That’s all. A lot of changes are good. Sometimes, changes are good.”
Bowness said the new staff — made up of himself, Scott Arniel, Marty Johnston, and Brad Lauer — need a chance to learn more about their players their habits before naming the new leadership group. He wouldn’t get into specifics about he and Wheeler’s conversation despite being pushed by a couple of reporters.
However, it was clear this was not a mutual decision as some initially assumed — it was a demotion. Wheeler said he was surprised by the decision, but had some time to process it over the past few days.
Wheeler Finally Held Accountable for Shortcomings
Back in April, this author wrote that Wheeler should accept the consequences for his failure to build a winning culture over six seasons, and that the consequences could include losing the captaincy.
The Jets stumbled to a sixth-place Central Division finish last season and struggled to find an identity or strong locker room culture. Wheeler was a big reason why, and Bowness — someone who’s been coaching for four decades — obviously recognized that.
Wheeler’s leadership was questionable last season. He often hid from the media, and when he did speak, he either made excuses, spouted empty platitudes, or was needlessly combative with journalists just trying to do their jobs.
Ultimately, a shift away from Wheeler’s intense and ultra-serious style was needed for the team to reverse its downward trajectory and get back to the playoffs.
Wheeler Losing the “C” Could Be Best for Both Sides
Despite Wheeler’s shortcomings, the former regime’s coaches in Paul Maurice and Dave Lowry refused to hold him accountable and continually played him on the top six with Mark Scheifele to the team’s detriment.
Bowness removing the “C” — which Wheeler admitted point-blank yesterday had become a “burden”— was a step toward reducing his role for the good of both player and franchise.
At 36 years old, Wheeler is no longer capable of keeping up with the opponents’ best, but can still be an X-Factor if he is deployed correctly and accepts a lesser role as a necessity. He remains a strong point-producer and effective on the power play, producing 60 points in 65 games last season despite having COVID-19 and a knee injury. He just shouldn’t and can’t play 20-plus minutes per game anymore.
Letting new players take the reins should take some of the pressure off of Wheeler, who’s admitted to having trouble “leaving it at the rink” over the past few seasons.
Wheeler Says He Won’t Go Quietly
Wheeler, to his credit, said the right things yesterday, and was fairly diplomatic.
“I don’t need a letter on my jersey,” he said. “There’s a time in my career where that validation was important to me. I don’t need that anymore. I’m really looking forward to watching a lot of the guys I had a privilege of watching grow up step into sort of an extended role.”
“If you think that because of this, I’m going to fade into the back and not be a leader on this team, you’re sorely mistaken,” he continued.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said a little later. “I’m still going to be doing the things I would have done with the ‘C’ on my jersey.”
Wheeler said it was his honour to serve captain and was grateful for the opportunity he was given to do so, but also said that he felt worn down. He reiterated that he remains committed to the team and said his plan is simply to contribute to a winning season.
Bowness also said he still expects Wheeler to provide a veteran presence, and that “some of the best players I played with and coached never had an ‘A,’ never wore a ‘C.’
Scheifele Should Feel Put on Notice, Too
While Bowness and Wheeler were the focus Friday, another player who wore a letter last season shouldn’t feel secure that he’ll wear one this season. That player is Scheifele, who served as an alternate captain alongside Josh Morrissey.
Scheifele enjoyed another strong offensive campaign, recording 29 goals and 41 assists for 70 points in 67 games, but point totals should not necessarily buy a letter. He had the worst defensive season of his career and his play without the puck hurt the Jets on many nights. Poor back-checking and glaring turnovers unfortunately became synonymous with his game.
Scheifele’s comments at the end of last season made it sound like he didn’t want to be with the Jets anymore and he acted more like an unrestricted free agent than a player under contract for two more seasons. He softened somewhat over the summer, commenting on how well Bowness communicates and wants a player’s input. In a recent interview with Sara Orlesky, he seemed energized and excited for a fresh start in 2022-23.
If Scheifele is motivated to keep his ‘A’ and gain Bowness’ trust, he’ll work extra hard and shed the half-heartedness and overall laziness that penetrated his two-way game.
The Changing of the Guard Has Begun
Once the final two years of Wheeler’s contract expire, he’ll be 38 and will either retire or sign a short-term deal with a contender to try and win the Stanley Cup that’s alluded him in his 14-season career. The changing of the guard had to happen at some point, so it may as well happen now as Bowness and company try to stop the Jets from falling into the “mushy middle” of irrelevance.
Under the NHL’s rules, teams with no captain can have three alternates. Morrissey should keep his ‘ A’ as his effort and leadership capabilities during a personal bounce-back season cannot be questioned.
If Scheifele keeps his letter, the third alternate should be Adam Lowry. The truculent power-forward leads by example on the ice and he’s been noted as a long-standing strong voice in the room. He’s committed to Winnipeg long term and is under contract through 2025-26.
If Scheifele loses his letter, both Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers should be granted ‘A’s.’ The sniper and speedster are team-first guys who work hard and excel at their roles.
Who ultimately will serve as the third captain in Jets’ 2.0 history is a decision to be made further down the line, and at this point, it’s not clear who will have that privilege. Pierre-Luc Dubois seemed a shoo-in future captain as his “give a crap” dial is always set to max, but since he revealed he has no intention of signing long-term and wants to test unrestricted free agency in 2024, he’ll likely be gone by then, if not sooner via trade. Right now, the frontrunner seems to be Morrissey.
Overall, the Bowness shakeup is significant as it represents the first time in a long time a Jets coach wasn’t happy to just keep doing the same old thing. It certainly adds yet another wrinkle to what will be a pivotal campaign, and it will be interesting to see who steps up as a leader.
What do you think of Wheeler losing his captaincy, and who do you think should wear letters this season? Comment below and let’s discuss!