Five games into his tenure as Winnipeg Jets’ interim head coach, Dave Lowry has begun to make his own mark on the talented but underachieving team he took over three weeks ago.
He hasn’t made any drastic changes since Paul Maurice resigned on Dec. 17. The Winnipeg Free Press reported Thursday that Lowry talks to Maurice near-daily, which some Jets fans may not appreciate hearing. Despite the Jets not having as clean a break from Maurice’s influence as it first appeared, Lowry is nonetheless beginning to distinguish himself from his predecessor.
Young Players Getting a Shot
Lowry has plenty of offensive weapons at his disposal and he’s using them, no doubt. But he’s also given some of his younger depth players elevated roles.
He promoted Jansen Harkins to the second line with Kyle Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois for Sunday’s game against the Vegas Golden Knights, their first game in two weeks due to COVID-19 related postponements that wreaked havoc on their schedule. The hard-working Harkins made good the opportunity Lowry gave him, scoring an early second-period goal that got the Jets back into the game after a sleepy first period.
Harkins’ 16:37 was a season high, and he stayed in his second-line spot for Tuesday’s game against the Arizona Coyotes. He wasn’t able to play in Thursday’s game against the Colorado Avalanche due to being placed in COVID-19 protocol.
In Lowry’s second game as coach, against the St. Louis Blues on Dec. 19, he gave Kristian Reichel his first taste of the big leagues. The 23-year-old undrafted forward played just 4:27 in his debut, but for the past three games, has played on the third line and has played between 10 and 12 minutes per game. He scored his first-career goal against the Golden Knights just 20 seconds after Harkins’ goal.
Due to Harkins in COVID-19 protocol and Paul Stastny being unable to play due to injury Thursday against the Colorado Avalanche, Cole Perfetti played in his third NHL game of the season.
The 20-year-old, after recording more points than any other forward (one goal, five assists) at the 2022 World Juniors that were ultimately canceled halfway through, skated with CJ Suess and Dominic Toninato in his first NHL game since October. He played 10:31, including 2:07 of power play time.
A New Focus On Net-Front Play
Most goals aren’t scored from long-range. They’re scored from near the blue paint and are the result of hard work. Dave Lowry has recognized that and has prioritized working on net-front play.
The Jets scored a number of goals from in-tight and on follow-up opportunities in their three-game road trip, including Andrew Copp’s and Stastny’s third-period goals in the 5-4 overtime victory over the Golden Knights.
The Jets’ net-front play was also strong in the 3-1 win over the Coyotes as well, with Pierre-Luc Dubois’ power play marker from in tight being the game-winner.
“I think this ‘going-to-the-net-thing’ is non-negotiable with our group,” defenceman Nate Schmidt said recently. His sentiments were echoed by Adam Lowry, who said “we want guys that, once the puck enters the zone, we want guys that are going to get to that (net-front) area. And, at the end of the day, the puck has to end up there to score goals.”
The Jets didn’t establish much net-front presence against the Avalanche, and while it was not nearly the only reason they were dominated 7-1, it led to plenty of easier looks for Darcy Kuemper.
Changes in Defensive Deployment
Dave Lowry has shaken up the status quo on the blue line. Although the back end has not been major point of weakness as in seasons past, he clearly has a different viewpoint than Maurice on how the defensemen should be deployed.
Against the Blues, he reunited Josh Morrissey and Dylan DeMelo due to Nate Schmidt being out with a non-COVID illness. Morrissey and DeMelo were effective together in both 2019-20 and in the first round of the 2021 playoffs against the Edmonton Oilers. Both defenders move the puck well and close gaps quickly.
Morrissey and DeMelo skated together for three straight games — all victories — before DeMelo went into COVID protocol prior to Thursday, forcing further changes.
Before DeMelo left the lineup, Neal Pionk — Schmidt’s old partner — skated with Brendan Dillon and Schmidt skated with Logan Stanley.
Dave Lowry has also played his three pairings more equally. Against the Golden Knights and Coyotes, every defenseman played at least 16 minutes. Logan Stanley’s TOI was higher than his season average for four straight games entering play Thursday, while Morrissey’s was lower than his season average in each game in the same four-game span.
“What we’re trying to do is build some pairs that we’re not necessarily concerned about when we’re on the road and we don’t get that final change, that we don’t have to be really concerned about who’s out (for the opposition)” Dave Lowry said recently. “We want our pairs to be able to play against anybody — and yes we’ll have matchups we do like — but you’re not always going to get them but we’re covered off in that regard.” (From ‘Jets’ players would rather skate than golf,’ Winnipeg Free Press, Jan. 3, 2022.)
Another Week Off Gives Presents Lowry With Opportunity
The Jets won’t play again until Jan. 13, when they face the Detroit Red Wings. Home games against the Seattle Kraken and Minnesota Wild were postponed by the league because Manitoba’s current COVID-19 public health orders only allow 250 fans in Canada Life Centre.
The elder Lowry, therefore, has another week to learn more about his players and test out further changes in practice — he’s been making the team practice harder and more frequently than Maurice did — to try and get more consistent results out of a squad that’s still not playing up to its potential.
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.