Winnipeg Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry’s decisions with defensive deployment have defied logic lately. He’s made a number of odd choices regarding who to dress, who to scratch, and who to keep in the minors.
Beaulieu, Heinola, and Stanley on an Odd Carousel
The three players most involved in the back-end eccentricities are rugged journeyman Nathan Beaulieu, puck-moving youngster Ville Heinola, and hulking 23-year-old Logan Stanley.
On Wednesday night against the Dallas Stars, Lowry scratched Stanley and dressed Beaulieu instead. Sending Stanley to the press box came with no apparent reason and was rather surprising, since Stanley has dressed for 40 games and Beaulieu has dressed for just 19.
One thought that with Paul Maurice’s departure in December, that the Jets would finally be free from the clutches of his veteran bias. Not so, as this bias seems to have continued under the Lowry regime.
Also coming with no apparent reason was the reassignment of the slick and smart Heinola to the Manitoba Moose on Sunday. The 2020 first-rounder had appeared in eight games since late January and was rounding into form after a rough first couple of contests.
Beaulieu is a worse option than Heinola or Stanley from every statistical standpoint, even though he’s the most experienced. “Ruggedness” is not an asset in today’s NHL, where speed rules the day. Stanley is not fast either, and has issues of his own, but has more upside in the offensive zone and is a young player with some potential to improve further.
Jets’ Handling of Heinola Frustrating Fan Base
Heinola is the best option, and his demotion becomes even more confounding considering Lowry said himself that Heinola “was playing good hockey and we want to make sure that he continues playing good hockey.”
If Heinola was playing good hockey, why send him to someplace you don’t have as much control over his usage? Typically, having a young player skate big minutes in the AHL — instead of just a few minutes in the NHL — is good for their development, but Heinola is too good for the AHL, and was averaging nearly 13-and-a-half minutes per game in the NHL this season.
Why not give the top prospect minutes in the NHL instead of a player like Beaulieu, who has no future with the Jets past this season?
Overall, Heinola’s treatment throughout 2021-22 is similar to the way former Jets’ defenseman Sami Niku was treated in seasons past. Heinola cannot be happy with how he’s being handled and if the Jets’ goal is to make a future top-four defenseman disgruntled and desirous of a trade out of town, they’re going about that the right way.
How to Make Sense of Lowry’s Choices?
There are a number of ways one can try to make sense of Lowry’s choices, but none of them are particularly satisfying.
One is that he values physicality, toughness, and “character” over everything else. If this is true, playing Beaulieu makes sense. It wouldn’t be nearly the first time that an older Jet who is “good in the room” got playing time over a young player with more upside. But the NHL has come a long way since “Jungle Dave” played in the rough-and-tumble 1980s and 90s.
A second is that the Jets are simply not willing to put anyone on waivers, even a seventh defenseman like Beaulieu. If that means sending down Heinola, who is waiver exempt, then that’s what they’ll do. It’s shortsighted, but this explanation at least makes sense.
A third is that the Jets are “showcasing” Beaulieu ahead of the March 21 Trade Deadline. However, Beaulieu is a known commodity — a tough depth option who is a liability without the puck and has little offensive upside. He doesn’t need to be showcased.
A fourth is that Lowry has abandoned trying to make the playoffs, as his team entered Wednesday’s action seven points out of the second Western Conference Wild Card spot with 32 games to go (despite yet another demoralizing loss that extended their losing streak to three, the Jets actually picked up a point in the race.) While it’s certainly time for the woefully underachieving Jets to sell, it doesn’t make sense to keep young players out of the lineup if all you’re doing is playing to play.
The only thing all this shows for certain is that Lowry is not the fresh voice with new ideas that will help the Jets reach their full potential — which is what Maurice said the team needed two months ago when he resigned. The failure to identify and properly use talent is still an issue, and it will limit the Jets’ ceiling until true new blood arrives behind the bench.
Declan Schroeder is a 26-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.