Jets same as expensive housecats Boast good pedigree, but can’t be coached, can’t be trained

If you simply go by record alone, it’s easy to argue the Winnipeg Jets are the exact same frustrating, inconsistent bunch right now that they were prior to a stunning early season coaching change. They had 31 points in 28 games under Paul Maurice (13-10-5). And they’ve collected 45 points in 41 games under Dave Lowry (20-16-5).

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/04/2022 (311 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

If you simply go by record alone, it’s easy to argue the Winnipeg Jets are the exact same frustrating, inconsistent bunch right now that they were prior to a stunning early season coaching change. They had 31 points in 28 games under Paul Maurice (13-10-5). And they’ve collected 45 points in 41 games under Dave Lowry (20-16-5).

That’s a statistical dead heat, an average of 1.1 points-per-game.

Sure, the colourful rants toward referees that go viral on social media might be a bit less frequent these days. The post-game soundbites to us starving scribes are lot less meaty, too. But there’s been no shift — seismic or otherwise — in the squad’s overall direction since the mid-December bombshell. They continue to underwhelm, and only a minor miracle over final month of the 2021-22 NHL regular season will spare the the indignity of missing the playoffs, which certainly wasn’t in the cards for a club spending to the salary-cap ceiling.

Don’t let a run of recent success completely fool you. Winnipeg may be 11-5-1 since the end of February. But many of those victories were against weaker opponents, and not exactly of the convincing variety. Yes, it’s a results-based business, and it’s foolish to “beat up a win,” as Lowry often likes to say. But the style of play doesn’t inspire confidence of sustained success, and we saw many of those bad traits rear their ugly head in Thursday’s 7-3 beatdown by the Maple Leafs in Toronto.

At the end of the season there will be a review of the coaching staff, and to determine if the interim label attached to Dave Lowry will be removed. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Free Press files)

TSN analyst Craig Button recently raised some eyebrows when he was asked where the blame rests in Winnipeg, pointing his finger directly behind the bench.

“Coaching. It’s been average coaching,” the former NHL GM said to a national television audience. “This isn’t so much about the people as it is the systems they employ, specifically defensively. They’re terrible in front of their net. They get pushed out of position. They give up lots of inner-slot shots, lots of plays off the cycle. They create a lot of their own problems. That’s coaching.”

Button went on to describe “a really good team on paper” that hasn’t translated to the ice. “I don’t think they understand what will give them success.”

Look, there’s no question Button knows his stuff. But I’m going to take issue with this particular position, suggesting it missed the mark and fed into an all-too-easy narrative around here which lets the primary culprits — the players themselves — off the hook.

What if this team, as currently constructed, is simply not very coachable?

What if this team, as currently constructed, is simply not very coachable? The more I watch the Jets play, the more convinced I am that even the great Scotty Bowman would have had trouble getting this group focused and staying on track. Fact is, many of the same bad habits keep reappearing in the performances of key skaters who ought to know better.

I’m looking directly at you, Mark Scheifele. Far too often this year, the commitment to play on the defensive side of the puck just hasn’t been there for the supposed No. 1 centre. We saw several glaring examples of that against the Maple Leafs, including a weak backcheck attempt on an Ilya Mikheyev short-handed rush that led to a pivotal goal in the game. And it continued a troubling pattern that only seems to be getting worse, not better.

Scheifele’s 64 points in 63 games are nothing to sneeze at, of course. Nobody is suggesting he isn’t an offensive star. But playing the huge role that he does brings additional responsibilities, and Scheifele continues to leave you wanting in those departments. The fact he is a ghastly minus-18 on a team that has a positive goal differential speaks to his immense struggles at five-on-five. And I’m not sure how much, if any of that, can be pinned on the coaching staff.

If anything, coach Lowry has tried multiple things to get Scheifele going. He’s switched up his linemates on several occasions, including breaking apart the usual joined-at-the-hip duo with Blake Wheeler. That actually seems to have sparked the captain, who has goals in back-to-back games and has been flying. Not so much for Scheifele, who is now playing with the dynamic Nikolaj Ehlers and the defensively responsible Paul Stastny.

Playing the huge role that Mark Scheifele does brings additional responsibilities, and he continues to leave fans wanting. (Trevor Hagan / Free Press files)

Lowry also appears to be scaling back his minutes at times, with Scheifele under 19 in three of the last six games. Heck, he doesn’t even start him for three-on-three overtime lately, which would have been an unfathomable development coming into this season. That role now typically goes to Pierre-Luc Dubois, who is making a legitimate argument, at the age of 23, that he is now the top centre on the team.

At this point, Lowry is running out of tools in the box. No, he’s not going to healthy scratch Scheifele, as many of you in my email inbox have suggested. It would send a hell of a message, for sure. But don’t hold your breath.

To be fair, Scheifele has company in the “uninspired” department many nights, but he’s a high-profile poster boy for what’s gone wrong. And until or unless he becomes the player we know he’s capable of — where the heck are you, 2018 playoff version??? — the team will likely continue to struggle as well. He’s that important.

If this current campaign ends the way we think it will, with the Jets on the outside looking in, a full-scale audit of the franchise is required. We know there’s going to be an exhaustive review of the coaching staff to determine if the interim label attached to Lowry will be removed. I’m not suggesting he’s the long-term solution here. But I don’t believe he’s the problem, either. Certainly not the primary one.

General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff shouldn’t escape scrutiny. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Free Press files)

Nothing should be off the table, from systems and personnel to culture and leadership. General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, who assembled the roster Maurice and now Lowry have to work with, shouldn’t escape scrutiny, either. Hard questions must be asked by True North. And tough decisions will likely have to be made.

I’d suggest the players themselves take a long, hard look in the mirror and wonder, “Maybe it’s not them. Maybe it’s us.”

Maurice clearly saw the writing on the wall, suggesting his message had grown stale and he’d taken this group as far as he could. Lowry, it appears, is now getting his own crash course in what prompted his exasperated predecessor to wave the white flag.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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