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Bowness tapped to lead Jets

True North true to form in selection of new bench boss

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Say this about True North: They certainly have a type. In tabbing the well-travelled Rick Bowness to be the next head coach of the Winnipeg Jets — a move expected to become official at some point this weekend — the organization checks off numerous boxes we know are extremely important to them.

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Opinion

Say this about True North: They certainly have a type. In tabbing the well-travelled Rick Bowness to be the next head coach of the Winnipeg Jets — a move expected to become official at some point this weekend — the organization checks off numerous boxes we know are extremely important to them.

First and foremost, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better human. The 67-year-old New Brunswick product known as “Bones” is beloved and respected around the league, and there’s no question the Jets are thrilled to have him as the next face of the franchise. Nobody buys tickets to watch the guys in suits, but Bowness (like his predecessor, Paul Maurice) is a first-class salesman who will be at ease dealing with the media and fans in a hockey-crazed market like Winnipeg.

Secondly, there’s the experience factor. Rather than hand the keys to some young up-and-comer, the Jets are turning to a guy who has been behind an NHL bench for most of the past four decades. More than 2,500 regular-season games, in fact, as either a head coach, associate or assistant. He truly has been there, done that and seen it all. And then some.

LM OTERO / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO Rick Bowness took the Dallas Stars to the Stanley Cup final in 2020 during his latest stint as an NHL head coach.

Thirdly, there are deep roots in place. Bowness finished his NHL career in Winnipeg, appearing in 45 games during the 1980-81 season. He spent two more years on the farm with the Sherbrooke Jets, where he was bitten by the coaching bug. He was back with the Jets in 1984-85 as an assistant, spending three years before taking the reins of his hometown Moncton Hawks of the AHL for parts of two years, then brought back to the big leagues by Winnipeg in 1988-89 for part of the year as head coach.

The hiring of Bowness may be a surprise, given that his name wasn’t among the widely reported short list of candidates who emerged over the past week after the top choice, Barry Trotz, turned down the job. Given the foundation and structure of the organization that is now about to employ him, it makes perfect sense.

It’s a nice story, for sure. A happy homecoming of sorts. But at the risk of pouring cold water all over this heartwarming development, there’s one other box that should trump all others — winning. And the jury is very much out as to whether Bowness, at this stage of his life, is the right man to get the job done.

MICHEAK RAINE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Rick Bowness cut his teeth as an NHL coach with the Winnipeg Jets in 1989.

A career head coaching record of just 211-351-76 with nary a championship ring doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence. It should be noted his numbers are skewed by four seasons at the helm of the lowly Ottawa Senators, starting with their entry into the NHL in 1992. There wasn’t much to work with there. Same with the New York Islanders in the late 1990s and a brief interim stint in Phoenix in 2002-03.

Bowness’ recent work is more encouraging. He took over Dallas during the 2019-20 season after Jim Montgomery was fired for “unprofessional conduct,” and he led the Stars all the way to the Stanley Cup Final that year inside the Edmonton bubble, ultimately falling to Tampa Bay (where he’d spent the previous five years as the right-hand man to Jon Cooper). Dallas just missed the playoffs during the truncated 2021 campaign, but made it as a wild-card this past year but were beaten by Calgary in a hard-fought seven game first round series.

Bowness then stepped down, and there was belief he was ready to retire after compiling an overall record in Texas of 89-62-25. Not so fast, apparently. Still some gas left in the ol’ tank.

There’s no question he’s a strong communicator who puts a major focus on tidy play in the defensive zone — something the Jets have been soundly lacking for several years. They would have got that in spades with someone of Trotz’s pedigree, and hope Bowness can now bring it with him to town.

He’s also shown an ability to work well with established superstars and promising young players. Dallas was built around a veteran core with the likes of captain Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov, with young forwards such as Jason Robertson and Roope Hintz gradually taking on bigger roles. That’s not unlike the current dynamic with the likes of Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler now being challenged for ice time from the likes of Pierre-Luc Dubois, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers, among others.

There’s also some blue-line comparables, with the Jets having several promising young players such as Ville Heinola, Dylan Samberg, Johnathan Kovacevic and Declan Chisholm ripening on the vine. Bowness certainly knows the value of leaning on young defencemen with the likes of Miro Heiskanen and Esa Lindell coming on strong the past few years.

Will it be enough? How different might Winnipeg’s roster look when the puck drops on a new season in October?

This is a Jets club at a crossroads, having missed the playoffs for the seventh time in 11 seasons. By the end, fans were angry. And players, too, with plenty of public grumbling and finger-pointing suggesting plenty was amiss. Maurice pulled the plug in the middle of the year, and interim coach Dave Lowry was unable to right what appeared to be a sinking ship.

Now the job turns to Bowness, who might want to have a life preserver or two handy.

Scheifele appears to want out. Wheeler is reportedly open to a change of scenery. Dubois has made it clear he wants to test the free agent waters when he’s eligible two summers from now, rather than sign a long-term extension. Throw in the fact 2019-20 Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck is also a UFA in two years, and there are alarm bells ringing all over the place right now.

This all-important off-season got off to an ugly start when the Jets went all-in on Trotz, only to have him say “Thanks, but no thanks.” Ten other teams filled their coaching positions in the meantime as Winnipeg scrambled to find a suitable Plan B. A source told the Free Press earlier this week they were targeting former NHLer Rick Tocchet, and ESPN’s Kevin Weekes reported on Thursday night the club had made him a contract offer he was mulling over.

Naturally, when Bowness emerged on Friday as the choice, many believed the Jets had been snubbed once again. (Tocchet spent the past year working on NHL broadcasts for TNT and is reportedly quite comfortable remaining in that role). For what it’s worth, I’m told talks between Winnipeg and Tocchet never reached the point of a formal offer being extended.

Other potential candidates included former Moose coach Pascal Vincent, former Jets forward Scott Arniel and former Detroit coach Jeff Blashill. Arniel could ultimately be added to Bowness’ staff as an associate coach. Only goalie coach Wade Flaherty was retained by Winnipeg, with assistants Jamie Kompon and Charlie Huddy also joining Lowry on the outside looking in.

Someone could probably make a heck of a movie one day about this entire process, with no shortage of plot twists along the way. Expect the next scene to play out on Monday, when Bowness will be formally introduced.

We know he wasn’t the first choice. He may not have even been the second choice. That, however, is water under the bridge. Good luck to the new coach. Given everything we know, he’s probably going to need it.

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.

History

Updated on Friday, July 1, 2022 9:53 PM CDT: typo fixed

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