The Winnipeg Jets’ 2021-22 season was a disappointment, as they came into the season considered a Stanley Cup contender but drastically underperformed, finishing sixth in the Central Division and well out of the playoff picture.
As such, various players underperformed or had less impact on the team than expected, and those players will be looking to bounce back under a new brand new coaching staff led by Rick Bowness. Here are their top-three bounce back candidates.
If David Gustafsson didn’t have bad luck last season, he would have had no luck at all.
He was given multiple chances to cement a role on the Jets’ bottom six, but was derailed by injuries and only played two NHL games. He was injured both in the first period of his season debut on Dec. 17 and in the first period of his return to the lineup on Jan. 2.
After he’d recovered by late February, the “Gus Bus” was sent back to the Manitoba Moose for the rest of the season so he could get back up to speed and play bigger minutes.
Gustafsson’s upsides are obvious. He was a force as the Moose’s top-line centre, playing big minutes in all situations and recording 30 points (15 goals, 15 assists) in 47 games. He has two-way skill, the ability to play on the power play and penalty kill, and is strong in the faceoff circle.
The 22-year old recently signed a two-year extension with the organization and is on the inside track for a bottom-six spot given the departures Zach Sanford and Evgeny Svechnikov. If he can stay healthy, his versatility and hard-working nature will make his 2022-23 his first full season in the NHL.
David Rittich is only two seasons removed from being a starting goaltender, and three seasons removed from being one of the NHL’s better ones.
The 29-year-old — who the Jets signed to a one-year deal last month after Eric Comrie signed with the Buffalo Sabres — had an excellent 2018-19 as a member of the Calgary Flames. He went 27-9-5 with a 2.61 GAA, .911 SV%, and one shutout, and in 2019-20, while his numbers dipped, they were still respectable and he was still their number-one guy.
It’s been tough sledding for the Czechian netminder since then. In 2020-21, he was supplanted by new arrival Jacob Markstrom, and traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the trade deadline. With the Leafs, he made four starts, but was a healthy scratch for the playoffs.
He spent last season with the Nashville Predators on a one-year deal, but struggled in a backup role, going 6-3-4 with a 3.57 GAA and .866 SV%. His disastrous start in Game 1 of the Predators’ opening-round playoff matchup with the Colorado Avalanche was unfortunately his most memorable, as he allowed five goals on 13 shots, was yanked before the first period was over, and never saw another minute of action as the Preds were swept. He should come into Winnipeg with a chip on his shoulder to prove he’s still “Big Save Dave.”
Comrie couldn’t gain the trust of the organization no matter how well he played, with former coaches Paul Maurice and Dave Lowry overplaying the beleaguered Connor Hellebuyck to their own detriment. Ideally, Bowness and company will give Rittich more chances at the crease than the former regime gave Comrie, Rittich will make good on them, and get enough playing time that Hellebuyck isn’t dead-tired for the stretch run again.
Neal Pionk didn’t have a terrible season, but his overall game took a step back during the first year of his four-year, $5.875 million contract. He finished with 34 points — a lower points-per-game clip than 2020-21, when he had 32 points in 54 games — and was not as strong defensively.
Pionk, at times, has been the Jets’ most dependable d-man, showcasing a heady mixture of dogged determination, physicality, quickness, and excellent offensive instincts. He displayed flashes of all that last season, but was inconsistent; along with the rest of his fellow blue liners, he couldn’t thrive under Maurice and former assistant coach Charlie Huddy’s outdated systems.
He was also demoted from the power play, with Josh Morrissey and Nate Schmidt becoming quarterbacks from the blue line instead.
Pionk was hard on himself in a late-April interview with the Winnipeg Free Press, saying of the Jets’ sorry state of affairs that “it starts by looking in the mirror, too. I look at myself, I look at my game as disappointing and underachieving…” (from ‘It was kind of embarrassing,’ Winnipeg Free Press, April 26, 2022.)
Pionk, 26 years old, is still in his prime and Bowness is known to stress defensive responsibility and helm shutdown teams. Under a revamped defensive stratagem that hopefully lead to the Jets allowing a lot fewer high-danger chances, Pionk has every chance to bounce back and take his game to an elite level.
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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.