The chance to regain relevance begins tomorrow.
Puck drop at Canada Life Centre Friday evening against the New York Rangers marks the onset of the most important season in Winnipeg Jets 2.0 history so far.
That’s no exaggeration. At no time since the Jets relocated from Atlanta in 2011 has more been riding on a campaign. How they do over the next 82 games will send a clear signal as to the long-term trajectory of the franchise.
Will they finish in the mushy middle again — falling further into irrelevance — or will they be reenergized and rebound?
The franchise has regressed in a lot of ways since the halcyon days of the 2018 Western Conference Final run that seems like 10 years ago, not five. Since that magical season — seemingly just the start of something great — the Jets have been a team in decline, with ineffective coaching, lack of effort, outsized egos, and a divided locker room leading to more futility than triumph.
Disappointing 2021-22 Franchise’s Lowest Point
It all came to a head in 2021-22, when the Jets finished sixth in the Central Division despite being considered by many as a Stanley Cup contender coming into the season.
They had talent on paper after a strong offseason from GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, but were sorely lacking in cohesion and identity. Systemic issues were obvious, but went unaddressed. Long-time head coach Paul Maurice resigned in frustration. Dave Lowry couldn’t get things straightened out. The team finished well out of the playoff picture and fans either got angry or checked out completely.
Things got even worse as the offseason begin. Mark Scheifele spoke like he was an unrestricted free agent, openly musing if he had a future with the team, despite being under contract for two more seasons.
Barry Trotz, an elite hockey mind who was courted hard by the Jets over a number of weeks to come aboard after being fired from the New York Islanders, announced in late June he wouldn’t be jumping right back into coaching. It was a gut punch to a fanbase wanting a huge culture change and their team to compete earnestly. Some saw it as an indictment, with Trotz surveying the “State of the Union” in Winnipeg and saying, essentially, “why would I want to get into that mess when I could get paid to stay home?”
A few weeks later, Pierre-Luc Dubois dropped the bombshell that he had no intention of signing long-term and really only wants to play for the Montreal Canadiens when he becomes a UFA in two years. He later signed his one-year qualifying offer.
Enter Rick Bowness and a Chance to Reset
Positivity levels were at an all-time low and fell even further due to Cheveldayoff’s sleepy summer. He acquired little new NHL-calibre talent and couldn’t seem to pick a lane: he certainly didn’t load up, nor did he accelerate a rebuild, nor did he sell to tank for future high draft picks.
Regardless, one new acquisition — one behind the bench — may just give the squad a better chance to turn things around than any player could.
Enter Rick Bowness, who was announced as head coach in early July to lukewarm reception. Some saw the 67-year-old’s 40-plus years of coaching experience, focus on defence, and connection to the Jets. 1.0 era as plusses, while others considered the hire disappointing compared to Trotz. There’s no doubt he was “Plan B.”
So far, Bowness has been a breath of fresh air. He’s jumped right into the deep end, and his bluntness, honestly, and openness about what’s broken and what (or who) needs straightening out is just what the franchise requires and long lacked under Maurice and company.
Bowness shook up the stale status quo this fall. He worked his charges hard in training camp and didn’t hold back on barking when necessary. He stripped Blake Wheeler of his captaincy, sending a clear message to the 36-year-old — who failed to establish a winning culture in six seasons with the C — that his leadership was inadequate, while signalling to future captain hopefuls that the changing of the guard is on.
He called out veterans when they exhibited bad habits in preseason, and put everyone on notice that they won’t get away with shirking their defensive responsibilities like they did under Maurice. For the first time in a long time, there will be consequences and accountability for poor play.
Related: Jets: Bowness’ Bluntness Refreshing & Needed After Maurice Era
“I tell them every line has to look the same when we don’t have the puck. Do we expect everyone to back check? Absolutely. There’s no free pass here. Absolutely not. Everyone has to back pressure,” Bowness said earlier this week.
Bowness openly acknowledged at his introductory press conference that he doesn’t need a job. That fact gives him the freedom to kowtow to no one.
“When I got into coaching, I said two things: I’m going to coach the way I’d want to be coached, and I’m going to do it my way,” he said last month. “If I’m going to get fired, I’m going to get fired doing it my way. But to be somebody you’re not, I can’t do that.”
Cheveldayoff’s “run-it-back” strategy is a gamble and puts a lot of pressure on Bowness and the rest of the brand-new coaching staff to get much more out of the same personnel. If Bowness sweating it, he hasn’t shown it at all.
Preseason Shows Positives
The up-tempo 4-1-1 preseason bodes well. The special teams fired on all cylinders, and a number of prospects stood out, most notably, Brad Lambert. More importantly, the effort and engagement levels were noticeably high considering the games didn’t mean anything in the standings. Buy-in from core players will be key and Bowness believes he has it across the board.
“Great effort, great attitudes,” he said earlier this week. “When you miss the playoffs you’re anxious to get back on the ice. You are. It’s a long, long summer. So we had that working to our advantage, everyone was ready to go in camp. The attitudes, the work habits, the coming to the rink ready to work has been outstanding since day one.” (From ‘Bowness Points,’ Winnipeg Free Press, Oct. 9, 2022.)
Bowness wants the Jets to be much more aggressive, faster, and more ferocious. He wants his defenders to jump up in the play and produce more offence. He wants everyone to have each other’s backs in an old-school kind of way.
After being on the receiving end of a few dirty hits from the Calgary Flames in the final two games of the preseason, it was a good sign that players jumped to their teammates’ defense without hesitation. One of Bowness’ biggest challenges will be to correct the culture enough that each man plays for the man beside him.
“You take a run at one of us, you take a run at all of us. We’ll kill those penalties. We’re not going to hesitate to stick up to each other,” he said after last Friday’s 5-3 victory.
Jets Are Talented, But Have More Questions Than Answers So Far
The talk has been good, and the early results promising, but it’s a small sample size.
There’s no doubt the Jets have talent — Kyle Connor flirted with 50 goals last season and Nikolaj Ehlers is one of the NHL’s most electric players. Scheifele has recorded seven-straight point-per-game-or-better seasons, while Dubois’ mix of skill and grit is compelling and he always cranks his “give-a-crap” meter up to 100. Even Wheeler can produce nicely in a more sheltered role.
Connor Hellebuyck is a Vezina-winning goaltender, and the defence is good enough, personnel wise, to play better under a more modern system.
There’s still a ton of questions, though — far more than answers.
Will Scheifele recommit himself to being a team player? Will Wheeler accept his lesser role as a necessity and even energized now that the responsibilities of the captaincy are no longer weighing him down? Will Ehlers finally get the power play time he deserves? Will Dubois end the season a Jet? Is Cole Perfetti truly ready to break out as a top-six talent?
Related: Winnipeg Jets 5 Must-Watch Games in 2022-23
Will the forward corp — not as deep as a season ago with Andrew Copp, Paul Stastny, and Evgeny Svechnikov gone — perform well enough that Bowness can roll four lines? How will the youngsters that Bowness is entrusting with larger roles — Perfetti, Morgan Barron and David Gustafsson up front and Dylan Samberg and Logan Stanley on the back end — perform under more pressure?
Speaking of the defence, will it be stout enough under Bowness’ systems that Hellebuyck isn’t bombarded with high-danger chance after high-danger chance? Will new backup David Rittich gain Bowness’ trust enough that Hellebuyck doesn’t have to be as drastically overworked as in seasons past?
Will Bowness’ changes be enough to help the Jets find an identity and make the playoffs? How much further damage would another subpar season do to the already weary fanbase?
These answers won’t all come at once, but beginning Friday, they’ll start coming in at a trickle. By late April, we’ll have the ultimate answer of if the Jets are destined to wallow in the mire of mediocrity for years to come.