There’s a leadership vacuum on the Winnipeg Jets, and it needs to be filled.
After a sleepy summer by general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, new head coach Rick Bowness barged into town this fall to shake up the status quo.
Last week, in a move that was a massive indictment of Blake Wheeler’s leadership skills (or lack thereof,) he stripped the veteran of the Jets’ captaincy, and replaced him with… no one.
Instead, the Jets will be one of seven captain-less teams and will go with three or four alternate captains. Under NHL rules, teams without a captain can have three alternates dressed in a game, but can rotate through alternates throughout the season if they wish.
It was announced Thursday, as training camp opened prior to a pivotal 2022-23 campaign, that Josh Morrissey and Mark Scheifele will retain their As. That means there’s one or two more players who will get a letter on their sweater and the added responsibility that goes along with it. Here, we’ll take a look at four candidates for new alternates.
If Bowness and company only name one new alternate, Adam Lowry is the most logical choice.
The 29-year-old was the Jets 2.0’s second-ever draft pick (67th overall, 2011) and has spent his entire eight season, 539-game career with the team. While he is not a massive points producer (he has 168 in those 539 games,) he has been a highly-effective third-line centre.
The big-bodied Lowry is a hard-working, gritty guy who does whatever it takes to win, whether that’s throwing a hit, blocking a shot, or dropping the gloves.
The Jets finished 6th in the Central Division and well out of the playoffs last season and would have done better if they followed Lowry’s example. He’s been noted for a number of seasons as a strong voice in the room and has committed to Winnipeg long term, under contract through 2025-26.
While Lowry certainly seems on the inside track, Bowness said nothing should be taken for granted as he tries to set the Jets on a new path and set himself apart from his predecessors.
“Listen, we missed the playoffs last year, so it’s wide-open. Everything goes, for me,” Bowness told the media Thursday as training camp opened at Bell MTS Iceplex. “We’ve got a new coaching staff that hasn’t seen a lot of these guys, so anyone who comes in here thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that, it’s a given,’ it’s not a given. We’re going to give everyone a good look.”
Nikolaj Ehlers said Thursday he’s also ready for the responsibility a letter brings.
The dynamic Dane is one of the Jets’ purest talents and is underrated league-wide despite having some of the best metrics around. In 478-career games over seven seasons with the Jets, he has 358 points and although he’s just 26, he considers himself a veteran and even referred to himself as “an older guy, now.”
While Ehlers said he’s never been the loudest guy in the room, he is well-rounded and owns game-breaking speed and creativity; in the 20 games last season he was out due to injury, it was obvious how much the Jets missed his skillset. As much as some others on the top-six are hyped up, it’s often Ehlers who actually stirs the drink.
Ehlers also has a desire for continual improvement and the willingness to work to achieve it, two traits befitting of a member of a team’s leadership core. After his personally-disappointing 2018-19 campaign, where he had a career-low 37 points, he studied film of every single one of his shifts to figure out ways to improve.
If Bowness wants to reward someone who simultaneously had a career year and was low maintenance, they should look no further than Kyle Connor.
The 25-year-old sniper was a picture of consistency and put the NHL on notice with a superb and historic season. The left-winger led the Jets in goals, assists, and points, scoring 47 goals and adding 46 assists for 93 points in 79 games. He took only two penalties all season despite having the highest ATOI of any Jets’ forward with 21:47, and won the Lady Byng Trophy in a shoo-in.
Some Jets’ leaders, over the past 12 months, have either been deficient on the ice (Scheifele and Wheeler) or hard to deal with off of it (Scheifele and Pierre-Luc Dubois.) That makes players like Connor who go quietly about their business of playing at a high level extremely valuable.
“He’s quiet, kind of introverted, keeps to himself, but when you dig deeper and pull the layers back, you realize how much he loves the game,” former Jets forward Paul Stastny told the Winnipeg Free Press in January. “He puts a lot of pressure on himself, and he expects himself to score every night and he expects himself to be one of the best players out there.”(From ‘Connor the quiet superstar,’ Winnipeg Free Press, Jan. 13, 2022.)
He is not a huge personality on the ice, but can lead by example and set standards with his play that other players should strive to live up to. Bowness should recognize the potential Connor has to help institute a much-needed culture change and get the Jets back to the playoffs.
This is more of an outside pick, but if Bowness decides to have four alternates, it would make sense for two to be forwards and two to be defenceman. If a defender is to join Morrissey in having a letter, it should be Dylan DeMelo.
The 29-year-old blueliner has played 138 games with the Jets since being acquired from the Ottawa Senators back in 2020, and 397 total in his seven-year NHL career. He is not a big points producer — he has just one goal and 21 assists in his Jets tenure — but is an intelligent defender and strong puck mover who can be counted on to play nearly 20 minutes per game.
DeMelo takes a lot of flack from a portion of the Jets’ fan base even though underlying metrics prove he’s a legitimate top-four talent; he is versatile in that he can play with any partner and make them better. For example, his stay-at-home play style allowed Morrissey to feel confident to take chances offensively, a big reason Morrissey bounced back and reclaimed his status as one of the NHL’s premiere defenders.
When you combine the necessary — if not flashy — contributions DeMelo makes on a nightly basis with his team-friendly contract that has two more seasons on it, it all adds up to a player who perhaps deserves some acknowledgement.
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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.