Home sweet home truly was that for the Winnipeg Jets as they went 3-0-0 on their homestand and vaulted to the top of the Central Division in the process.
The Jets are now now 8-3-1, have points in their past seven games, and have gotten off to the best start through 12 games in the 2.0 era. Here are five takeaways from the three games that were.
1) Jets Gave Consistent 60-Minute Efforts
Prior to welcoming the Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks, and Dallas Stars to town, head coach Rick Bowness put his team on blast despite them capturing five of six points on a three-game western swing. At the time, he said eight of the nine games they’d played were “below the standards and our expectations of how we want to play” and went on to call out his club for inconsistent effort, compete, and passion levels.
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“They’re not sitting there saying, ‘Wow, we’re 5-3-1, this is great.’ No one’s in that room saying that,” Bowness assured. “What isn’t acceptable is some of the terrible things we’ve seen in our team play. We have to come to an agreement on what is and what isn’t acceptable in terms of our standards and in terms of our expectations of ourselves.”
It seems the Jets were listening and received his message loud and clear, because they strung together three efforts even a taskmaster like Bowness was proud of.
In the 3-2 win against the Canadiens, they gave up just 22 shots and controlled play — especially in the third period — and would have won in regulation instead of overtime if not for the heroics of goaltender Sam Montembault.
In a 4-0 win against the Chicago Blackhawks, they had another well-rounded effort in all facets, making Bowness much more satisfied.
“We’re getting there,” he said. “It’s a team game. I’ve mentioned this a couple times, we want every line to look the same without the puck. And we’re getting there. We’re not there 100 per cent, but we’re getting there. If we can get every line doing that, then the skill sets take over. So we’re making good progress in that way.”Rick Bowness
“Our details have been right. We’re getting everyone’s A-game right now,” Connor Hellebuyck concurred. “We’ve got a lot of character in this room and it’s starting to show. We care about winning and we’re showing it.” (From ‘Jets near top of standings with 4-0 win over Blackhawks,’ Winnipeg Free Press, Nov. 5, 2022.)
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The true litmus test was the finale against the Stars, a much better team than the rebuilding Canadiens or Blackhawks. On Filipino Heritage Night, with first place on the line, the Jets passed with flying colours.
The home side turned in their best performance in recent memory, imposing their will from start to finish and leaving with a well-deserved 5-1 victory. They dominated the first period, putting 18 shots on net without beating Scott Wedgewood, but broke the dam in the second with four goals and coasted the rest of the way.
“I see a more confident team. They understand if they play the right way and do these things that we keep preaching, we’re going to have success,” Bowness said after the win. “We are going to cut down on the chances against, the shots against and we are going to have a lot more fun when we get the puck. I think that they are starting to see it. They should see it. They’re playing like they see it. The confidence is there right now.”
2) Hellebuyck Is In Top Form
Hellebuyck recently said this is “probably the best I’ve been” and it’s hard to argue with him, given his results.
Hellebuyck started all three games and continued to be lights out, allowing just three goals on the 74 shots he faced. He now sits 7-2-1 with a 1.98 GAA, a .938 SV%, and a pair of shutouts, and the Jets sit second-best in the NHL in goals against per game at 2.33.
Indeed, the veteran has been nothing less than elite in the early stages and has left last season — which was shaky by his standards — firmly in the rearview. He’s gotten back to his core principles by undoing some tweaks he made to his game, the Winnipeg Sun’s Scott Billeck wrote recently. (from ‘I got back to my core: Jets’ Hellebuyck got back to Vezina form by finding the fun again,’ Winnipeg Sun, Nov. 5, 2022.)
Through their first nine, the Jets did not do well with their team goal of reducing the number of shots and high-danger chances Hellebucyk faced per game. They made some progress on that front on the homestand, allowing just 22 shots to the Stars like they did against the Canadiens.
Over-reliance on goaltending has been an unfortunate hallmark of the Jets’ game for a long time and always eventually lead to disaster, like it did last season when Hellebuyck was overworked and dead-tired by March. They’ll want to give him more 20-something shot nights and fewer 48-shot nights like he endured on the last game of the road trip against the Vegas Golden Knights.
3) Jets Continue To Score By Committee
Although the Jets’ top scorers are not all firing on all cylinders and they are 16th league-wide in goals scored per game, they’ve had enough contributors up and down the lineup to be successful.
Pierre-Luc Dubois has been formidable again, recording six goals and five assists to lead forwards with 11 points. 47-goal guy Kyle Connor, generally relied on to carry the offensive mail, has just two tallies so far, but has chipped in eight assists thanks to his underrated playmaking skills. Mark Scheifele also has 10 points — a team-leading eight goals to go along with two assists.
Blake Wheeler has nine points (three goals, six assists,) while Cole Perfetti and Adam Lowry each have eight (three goals, and five assists for both the youngster and the new alternate captain.) That’s a pretty good distribution for a team some feared would not get enough scoring from lines two through four.
Ahead of them all, however, is an unlikely face in defenseman Josh Morrissey. He is off to the best offensive start of his career by far, with one goal and 11 assists.
Coming off a career-best season with 37 points, Morrissey is on pace to shatter that number. Bowness recently credited his success to just letting him play.
“He knows he’s got the green light to join the rush, to lead the rush, to skate the puck out of the zone,” Bowness said. Some of those decisions, they’re not based on a system. They’re just based on his abilities… Don’t put too much emphasis on the system. Put an emphasis on his ability to skate and read the play and his hockey IQ and his skillset.”
The smooth-skating 27-year-old has been a workhorse on the Jets’ back end for five seasons and all of the skills he’s built during that time — his puck-moving ability and skill at transitioning from defence to offence (and vice-versa) in addition to his elite feet — have been on full display.
Despite Bowness saying he’s just letting Morrissey do what he does, the blueliner himself gave credit to the coaching staff’s new systems that suit his game.
“We’re just getting started. There’s a lot of parts I can keep improving on, as we all can,” Morrissey said. “The offensive stuff, I worked hard in the off-season to improve my offensive skills. At the end of the day, when you play with great players and you get those guys the puck, those things are going to happen. Keep getting better every day, keep building.”
4) Special Teams Are Trending in the Right Direction
The Jets’ special teams came into the homestand sputtering. The power play was operating at a woeful 13.3 per cent efficiency, with just four goals through nine games.
They doubled that total on the homestand, potting four man-advantage goals — one against the Canadiens and three (on three shots!) against the Blackhawks. The power play is now operating at 20 per cent efficiency, still only 19th league-wide but a big improvement.
The penalty kill was a lesser problem through the first nine, but had still allowed five goals. It did not allow a sixth, posting clean sheets in each game — 2/2 against the Canadiens, 3/3 against the Blackhawks, and 1/1 against the Stars — and now is fifth-best in the league at 83.3 per cent efficiency.
The best way to have a good penalty kill is to simply not take many penalties, and the Jets have done a good job being disciplined, averaging only seven penalty minutes per game, third-lowest in the league.
5) Jets Culture Is Changing For the Better
The Jets’ locker-room culture lapsed since the 2017-18 season and the run to the Western Conference Final. Paul Maurice allowed animosity to fester by not holding anyone accountable, while Wheeler was not up to the task of cultivating a winning atmosphere when he was captain. That poor leadership created to a cloud of complacency and toxicity that obscured the path to victory.
Bowness had preached togetherness and group leadership since being hired in July. So far, he has followed through on his promises to call a spade a spade and to hold everyone to task for their shortcomings.
In the spirit of turning the page and agreeing there are some things everyone must do for the team to succeed, the players collaborated to create a three-point pledge, which was signed by each member and now hangs on the walls of Canada Life Centre and the Bell MTS IcePlex.
The first point of the pledge is titled “Purpose” and reads:
“Everything we do is with a purpose. We work on our game in practice and do every drill with a commitment to getting better and making our teammates better. We control what we can control and do our jobs to the maximum of our abilities every day. Our attitude and effort is consistent. We value our relationship with each other. We are never satisfied.”
The second point is titled “Integrity” and reads:
“We honour our word. Either by keeping our word, or by telling our teammates we haven’t kept our word and asking for forgiveness. We are respectful to everyone in our locker room. We clean up after ourselves and we always show up on time. We take great pride in being a Winnipeg Jet.”
The third point is titled “Open Handed Communication” and reads:
“We communicate with each other openly and honestly. We don’t hold side conversations and go directly to the source if we have concerns about a teammate. Everyone on our team carries an equal voice and we openly receive dialogue from one another as long as permission has been granted to do so. We are honest and approachable.” (From ‘Sign of the times: Jets new culture on display in locker room,’ Winnipeg Free Press, Nov. 7, 2022.)
The Jets still have a long way to go to make the playoffs in a pivotal campaign where the long-term trajectory and relevance of the franchise are on the line. The early results, though — as we said at the top, they’re off to their best start through 12 games in Jets 2.0 history — are surprising and promising.
The air around the team seems lighter and the effort level is noticeably higher from some players guilty of phoning it in last season. Everyone seems to actually like each other and are dedicated to battling together. If each player consistently keep the pledge in mind, there’s potential they can truly leave the Maurice era and all its disappointments in the past.
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.