Records that precede unfortunate events — 9-3-3.
That was the mark the Winnipeg Jets played to through 15 games last season. The squad, facing high expectations they’d be a Stanley Cup contender after an active offseason, was meeting them and sitting at the top of the Central Division.
It soon all fell apart in a profound way. Less than a month later, head coach Paul Maurice abruptly quit and the team ended up finishing well out of the playoff picture.
Here were are one year later, through 15 games once again. Under new head coach Rick Bowness, the Jets are off to a 10-4-1 start, much better than most anticipated. Are they for real this time, or are they destined for the same path as a season ago?
Early 2021-22 Success a Mirage
Last season exposed a number of systemic flaws in the Jets’ game, but the cracks — cracks neither sheer talent nor offensive prowess could cover up — took a little bit to show.
Gathering behind the dam of nine victories and 21 points through Nov. 16, 2022 was a pool of problems: an over-reliance on goaltending, too many high-danger chances allowed from a defensive core that had better personnel but was forced to play outdated systems, a terribly passive and ineffective penalty kill, a lack of an accountability structure, and an ineffective coach who was happy with doing the same old thing, night after night.
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The dam began to leak with a 2-1 shootout loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Nov. 18, and burst soon after, with four more losses following in succession. After one win, the most embarrassing defeat in recent Jets’ history occurred — a listless 1-0 home loss to the bottom-feeding Arizona Coyotes.
By then, it was clear Maurice had taken the team as far as they could go. As Christmas edged closer, they continued to stumble under the bench boss’ stale message and played down to greatly inferior (on paper) opponents.
Maurice resigned on Dec. 17, saying he’d lost his passion and a new voice was needed. That “new” voice, former assistant coach Dave Lowry, was “Maurice Lite” when it came to his systems, and he proved no more capable of getting an underachieving — and sometimes downright lazy — squad rowing in the same direction.
Lowry guided them to a 26-22-6 record, but the locker-room culture continued to worsen and he got little buy in. By April, some players were openly pointing fingers at others and a despondent Blake Wheeler was at a total loss, saying it seemed the team he’d captained for six seasons was back at “square one.”
Lowry was not renewed and the Jets hired Bowness — who already knew he wasn’t going to sign a new contract with the Dallas Stars — in early July after Barry Trotz turned them down. Heading into this pivotal season, with the long-term trajectory and relevance of the franchise on the line, the Jets were considered by most to be a bubble playoff team, at best.
Jets Exceeding Expectations So Far in 2022-23
Through 15 games this season, the Jets have 21 points and sit second in the Central Division, one point behind the Dallas Stars with two games in hand.
They’ve done that despite a much quieter offseason from Kevin Cheveldayoff than in 2021-22 and growing pains in adjusting to the stern Bowness’ new systems and high expectations.
They’ve also had injury adversity, with dynamic Dane Nikolaj Ehlers having played just two games and not coming back any time soon, Morgan Barron out until at least December, and Mason Appleton out for the next two to three months after being injured against the Seattle Kraken and having wrist surgery surgery. Bowness himself missed eight of the first nine due to COVID-19, far from ideal considering he’s being relied on more than anyone in Cheveldayoff’s run-it-back strategy.
Their schedule’s also been tough: six of their first nine games were on the road, eight of those were against teams with 94-plus points last season, and they’ve had three back-to-backs.
Can The Jets Keep Early Success Going?
The big question is will the Jets will keep succeeding? The answer is yes, if they keep playing sustainably.
Relying on Connor Hellebuyck to stand on his head isn’t sustainable, nor is trying to outscore opponents in a track meet — two ways the Jets tried to win last season and sometimes did, but not nearly enough.
Winning sustainably has been a focus for Bowness in a way it never was for Maurice. While Maurice didn’t care how the points came along as long as they did, Bowness has put his team on blast for not playing the right way even in wins, like after the West-Coast road trip where they captured five out of a possible six points but started slowly in each game and were caved in for long stretches.
Since their perfect three-game homestand at the beginning of the month, the Jets have looked comfortable — even confident — in close contests and have not fallen apart at the first sign of trouble.
Their advanced and team stats have all improved from last season. Taking a look at possession metrics in all situations — the best teams have the puck more often than not — their CORSI is 51.30 per cent, up from 49.63 per cent last season and their Fenwick is 51.16 per cent, up from 49.53 per cent. They’ve cut down on the number of high-danger chances allowed per game slightly — 13.26 per game this season compared to 13.41 per game last season — and have improved defensively since the beginning of the season.
Their power play is about the same — 21.15 per cent this season compared to 21.05 per cent last season — but their penalty kill has improved nearly 10 points, operating at an 84.21 per cent efficiency this season compared to a 75.00 per cent efficiency last season. This season’s figure is third best in the NHL and key to their success is how rarely they’ve been penalized; they have given up the second-fewest power play opportunities in the league.
Better Team Culture Could Stop Another Tank
More intangibly but also importantly, the air around the team seems lighter and the effort level is noticeably higher across the board. Everyone seems to like each other and are dedicated to battling together; they even created a three-point pledge outlining what every player must do and how the culture must be to find success.
“We have a very resilient, character driven group,” Mark Scheifele, who leads the team in goals, recently told the Winnipeg Free Press. Scheifele would have never made that type of comment last season — considering he was the player with the biggest attitude and effort problem — and it shows how far they’ve come already. (From ‘Jets have something special going on,’ Winnipeg Free Press, Nov. 14, 2022.)
This is not last season’s Jets. Does that make them immune from a downturn? Certainly not — there is still a long way to go for them to get back into the playoffs. But expectations are beginning to heighten, and rightfully, that they really are for real this time.
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.