WINNIPEG — “Seismic change?”
Rick Bowness was quick to joke that he’s been called worse when asked how Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff described the decision to overhaul the coaching staff this off-season.
But for a guy who concedes that he isn’t into labels, it is clear that the new head coach of the Jets is going to need to have a big impact on his new team for Winnipeg to return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“Listen, I’m a coach, that’s all I know how (to do), so whatever I’m called, I’m coming out and I’m just gonna do my thing,” said Bowness, whose enthusiasm was on full display during two sessions of teaching on Thursday. “The reasonable goal is we have no choice, we’ve got to get ready for the season. So like we talked to the players, every day you’re coming to the rink you’d better be ready to work, you better be ready to think, you better be ready to buy in.
“Because that’s what it’s all going to come down to on Oct. 14, who’s bought in the most, who’s worked the most, who’s paid attention the most and who’s on the page. It’s all in. It’s all about paying attention every day.”
To the surprise of no one, the guy who has been involved in the NHL game as a player or coach for five decades (and counting) is up for the challenge.
No, this isn’t a stern, my-way-or-the-highway approach — Bowness is far too strong a communicator to come across that way — but on the first day of on-ice sessions at training camp, you didn’t need a road map to see the Jets are heading in a different direction.
When Bowness says players are entering the season with a clean slate, this isn’t just lip service.
Any previous hierarchy that existed is out the window, ice time is going to be doled out based on merit.
Whether you’re an experienced player looking for an enhanced role or a youngster trying to become an NHL regular, Bowness is looking for players to leave a lasting impression.
“We missed the playoffs last year, so it’s wide open,” said Bowness. “Everything goes for me. We’ve got a new coaching staff, I’ve seen a lot of these guys (as an opposing coach), so anyone comes in here thinking ‘oh, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that, it’s a given,’ — that’s not a given.
“We missed the playoffs. We’ve got a new staff so we’re going to give everyone a good look. And the guys that we see and see good things in practice, we’re going to give them a good look.”
Just a week after the public announcement that veteran forward Blake Wheeler had been stripped of the captaincy, Jets players weighed in publicly on the topic. While the requisite amount of respect was paid for the job he’s done in that role, you also got the sense that some players were definitely looking forward to the opportunity to have a louder voice in this collective effort.
“I’m an older guy now. I’m 26. I’m ready to take a little more responsibility and I think we have a lot of guys here that are ready to take that step,” said Nikolaj Ehlers. “To be able to have 25 guys take ownership, I think that’s going to go a long way. I haven’t been the loudest guy in the room. I try to do my best out there and show it on the ice, but I do think that I’ve realized that I’ve got things I can say as well and I’m ready to take that step.”
A change with who wears the letters isn’t the only shift in philosophy to be implemented with the new coaching staff.
Not only do the Jets plan to play an aggressive style in all three zones, Bowness is expecting his blue-liners to be far more involved after combining for only 24 goals last season.
That doesn’t mean the Jets plan to throw caution to the wind and raise the risk profile substantially — the forwards are going to need to do their part in terms of coverage in order for this plan to succeed.
Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck is eager to see this plan implemented and not just because it should help make life a bit easier on him when it comes to the volume and quality of shots he faces.
“I’ll do whatever it takes to win games,” said Hellebuyck. “When a new coach comes in with a proven philosophy, I’m buying into it, so I’m pretty excited about where we’re going and this is just the beginning.”
Finally, on a day when optimism is the prevailing mood and excitement is a word that gets thrown around by virtually everyone who steps in front of a microphone, Cheveldayoff basically let it be known to the rest of the NHL that he remains open for business.
Yes, the relative inactivity this offseason can be viewed as a vote of confidence to his core group — and in many ways it was — but that doesn’t mean Cheveldayoff isn’t still actively looking for ways to improve this team, perhaps even before the season opens on Oct. 14 against the New York Rangers.
“Some things have to play themselves out as well. There is going to be opportunity here and competition, so things may change,” said Cheveldayoff. “You can’t crystal ball things sitting here right now. I do know for a fact, this group knows it has something to prove.”
This wasn’t Cheveldayoff’s effort to publicly put his players on notice, that’s not his style, but the message he delivered was similar to the one Bowness authored later in the afternoon.
The results of last season were simply not good enough and things are going to need to change quickly.
“I feel we have a playoff team. But whether I feel it, or you feel it, they have to feel it,” said Cheveldayoff. “We sat here 12 months ago and the general consensus about the team wasn’t if we were going to make the playoffs, it was about how many rounds should this team win. Something got lost in translation along the way. You have to earn that right to make the playoffs. These guys feel that right now.
“There are lots of really great pieces on this team. To become a team, it’s about putting those pieces together. It’s about coming together as a team. It’s about playing for each other. It’s about all those kinds of things. You can have all the parts, but you have to bring it together.”
As for the storyline surrounding this group and the swath of players with contracts that are set to expire in the summer of 2024, Cheveldayoff had no interest in going down that road.
“I don’t think we’re focusing on anything else other than what’s right in front of us,” said Cheveldayoff. “We start trying to talk about two years from now, (there is) so much runway between now and then. Obviously in the (kickoff) meetings, we talked about setting a standard and pushing each other to uphold that standard.”
Reaching and upholding that standard is definitely on the minds of the players, since they don’t want a repeat performance of last season when the Jets failed to meet both internal and external expectations.
“We talked about it until we were blue in the face, really, about being frustrated, disappointed in last season, feeling like we underachieved and we could have achieved more, so now it’s kind of on us,” said Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey. “We have a new staff that’s excited, we’re excited and we get another shot to show that we are a good team and we’re a team that can make the playoffs in our minds.
“As a player, that’s the confidence you want from your organization. Now it’s time for us to buy into the systems, buy into our coaching staff and go to another level that we think we have and can get to.”