New Jets coach Rick Bowness makes immediate impact

Demands accountability from entire roster

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He was the highlight of a sleepy summer for the Winnipeg Jets, his addition marking a “seismic change” to the organization as described by general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.

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He was the highlight of a sleepy summer for the Winnipeg Jets, his addition marking a “seismic change” to the organization as described by general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.

On Thursday, as the calendar flipped to fall, new head coach Rick Bowness got his first opportunity to see his team hit the ice for Day 1 of training camp. His presence could be immediately felt, as Bowness barked orders alongside his staff — a group that includes assistants Scott Arniel, Brad Lauer and Marty Johnston — and kept an up-tempo pace between two groups that ran 90-minute sessions each.

Afterward, Bowness, who was hired on July 4, following the departures of Paul Maurice and then Dave Lowry, said he was happy with the first day of workouts. He admitted there’s still plenty of work to do over the next few weeks to get ready for the regular season, which kicks off at home against the New York Rangers on Oct. 14.

New head coach Rick Bowness got his first opportunity to see his team hit the ice on the first day of training camp. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

With new systems to install and a culture in need of revamping, there’s not a ton of time with which to work. The veteran NHL coach is committed to making his mark early by preaching accountability and competition up and down the roster.

“Listen, we missed the playoffs last year, so it’s wide-open. Everything goes, for me,” Bowness told the assembled media at Bell MTS Iceplex. “We’ve got a new coaching staff that hasn’t seen a lot of these guys, so anyone who comes in here thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that, it’s a given,’ it’s not a given. We’re going to give everyone a good look.”

He added: “Three weeks and six (exhibition) games, that’s what we have, and we’ll make it work.” To ensure a productive start, earlier this week Bowness provided all 50 players at camp with detailed film of the new systems he plans to deploy this year. Thursday had an emphasis on the neutral zone, with Friday’s focus shifting to defensive responsibilities, before moving onto the forecheck on Saturday.

It’s a lot to learn over a small amount of time, but the players seem eager to adapt and are motivated by the changes. Last season is being viewed as a collective failure, with this year, under Bowness, an opportunity for redemption and better results.

“We have a lot of guys in this room that want to get better. They want to learn. They want to come to the rink and work on something and have a purpose every day, and I think the coaches are doing a great job at that,” Jets centre Mark Scheifele said. “These three weeks are going to be big. We’re going to have to learn a lot; there’s going to be a lot crammed in. But I think everyone’s really excited for that. Just that energy going into it is a game changer.”

The Jets finished last season sixth in the Central Division, eight points shy of a playoff spot, falling well short of their heady expectations. Many felt a year ago the Jets were built for a long playoff run; this season, expectations are being tempered or ignored all together, even if there’s a palpable feeling of wanting to prove their critics wrong.

“In my experience, expectations are what kill teams,” goaltender Connor Hellebuyck said. “You come in with expectations of great things and it’s hard to live up to it. It’s a mental grind. If you come in and you expect yourself to battle every single day and give yourself a chance at great things, that’s when they happen.”

Bowness referenced several times the Jets as a hard-skating team that needs to be constantly moving to be effective. That was clear in how he ran practice, with several battle drills and quick whistles.

He’s got a good idea of what his top-nine forwards are going to look like, with Scheifele currently centering Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers, Pierre-Luc Dubois between Blake Wheeler and Cole Perfetti, as well as a checking line made up of centre Adam Lowry alongside wingers Mason Appleton and Jansen Harkins. As for the fourth line, Bowness has several options and will exercise them before finalizing the trio.

It’s a different scenario for a crowded blue line. Bowness has opted to stick a veteran defender with a younger player, in order to get a proper evaluation of both.

Nikolaj Ehlers was his same old speedy self on the first day of training camp. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

The pairings will work themselves out over time, but one thing is for sure: Bowness wants to see more scoring from the defence.

“They only got 24 goals out of the D last year, we’re going to do a lot more than that,” he said. “Our D are coming.”

With much of the same team returning this season, it will take more than Bowness barking and new systems for the Jets to get into the playoffs and fight for a shot at the Stanley Cup. It will be up to the players and their willingness to commit to change, for a coach they’re still learning about.

“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,” defenceman Josh Morrissey said. “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 can have and get to.”

Jeff.Hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

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