Rejuvenated Jets playoff bound

New coach, new approach, sour memories of last season motivate talented squad on eve of new campaign


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BANFF, Alta. — Perhaps it’s the high altitude getting to my head. Maybe it was the tiring two-and-a-half hour hike up Sulphur Mountain, the relaxing soak in the hot springs or the breathtaking views everywhere you turned. Whatever the reason, I dare say I’ve had a bit of a reckoning over the past few days spent covering the Winnipeg Jets in beautiful Banff.

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BANFF, Alta. — Perhaps it’s the high altitude getting to my head. Maybe it was the tiring two-and-a-half hour hike up Sulphur Mountain, the relaxing soak in the hot springs or the breathtaking views everywhere you turned. Whatever the reason, I dare say I’ve had a bit of a reckoning over the past few days spent covering the Winnipeg Jets in beautiful Banff.

It says here the hockey team is going to make the Stanley Cup playoffs this season.

I know, I know, I’ve been critical in this space of general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and a lack of roster turnover from the one that simply wasn’t good enough to get it done last year. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, but in a results-oriented business you don’t get points for effort.

And yes, there are still plenty of question marks surrounding the Jets, not to mention holes in the lineup that could get exposed. Are they too top heavy up front? Where is the depth scoring coming from? How will the blue line hold up? Will Connor Hellebuyck be counted on to constantly bail out his teammates? Is all this talk of increased defensive awareness going to be proven cheap once the games start to count for real? Can they consistently win the special teams battle?

All that being said, it really does feel like change is in the air. And very much for the better.

When he spoke to us last month, Cheveldayoff called the hiring of Rick Bowness as the new head coach a “seismic” shift for the organization. That seemed like hyperbole at the time. But colour me impressed with what the 67-year-old has done since training camp began three weeks ago.

Stripping Blake Wheeler of the captaincy sent a hell of a message that it wasn’t going to be business as usual. The practices have been long and intense, with all kinds of attention to detail. Bowness has screamed himself hoarse at times, with plenty of teaching to do and very little time to do it. He’s vowed there will be “no free rides” this year, and that goes up and down the roster no matter the name on the back of the jersey or the size of the salary cap hit.

At exit meetings last spring, multiple players told Cheveldayoff they wanted more structure and more accountability. They certainly have it now.

It’s not just about cracking the whip. This bonding session in Banff, where players were paired off with teammates they might not traditionally spend a ton of time with as they went fishing and golfing, was likely just what the doctor ordered for a group that appeared to come unglued at times last year.

Plenty of fun was had, but they also mixed pleasure with business.

It’s silly to put a lot of stock into pre-season results, so Winnipeg’s 4-1-1 record doesn’t mean much. But the last two games, where the Jets faced pretty much the starting roster of the Calgary Flames in back-to-back games and won both by a combined score of 10-3, certainly opened up my eyes to this group’s potential.

It wasn’t just the final result, but little things that stood out. Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers noticeably busting their tails to backcheck. Forwards covering for pinching defencemen. Cleaner zone exits. Keeping opposition shots to the perimeter and limiting second, third and fourth chances.

It was far from perfect, of course. But it was progress. And the new systems Bowness and his staff have introduced, that put an emphasis on better puck movement and more aggression, are getting positive early returns.

Hellebuyck spoke with us media types in Alberta on Tuesday, and the focus and determination he projects is notable. He’s already won the hardware for league’s top goalie. There’s another trophy the 29-year-old desperately wants. The fact he’s also two years away from unrestricted free agency, just like teammates Scheifele and Pierre-Luc Dubois, adds another jolt of urgency to the situation.

It should also serve as motivation, just as the “chip on the shoulder” that gets referenced time and time again from those who went through last year’s roller-coaster ride.

“I see a lot of guys hungry to learn and the motivation is there, the feel in the locker room is awesome — everyone is ready to be their best and there’s not stress,” Hellebuyck said.

I firmly believe the Jets got crushed under the weight of significant pressure last year. The trickle of COVID going through the team, one or two players at a time, a string of serious injuries to the likes of Wheeler, Scheifele and Ehlers, the shocking resignation of coach Paul Maurice and the awkward interim hiring of Dave Lowry all added up to disaster.

There appears to be no such high bar outside the locker room going into this campaign, which is just the way they like it.

“When you’re coming into a season with expectations, you’re constantly trying to live up to those expectations and you forget about the process. That’s what kills you,” said Hellebuyck.

I asked defenceman Nate Schmidt the other day what he thought of the fact his team is an afterthought when so-called experts start making predictions. “Perfect,” he replied with a grin.

The Jets still have plenty of star power, and the top trio of Scheifele, Connor and Ehlers could truly be elite. All three did one-on-one interviews with media in Alberta earlier this week, and they’re saying all the right things about how they need to play. Along with the likes of a determined Dubois, a rising young star in Cole Perfetti, a blue-line that believes it’s a lot better than it showed a year ago and the presence of Hellebuyck who can single-handedly steal any game he’s playing in.

A year ago at this time, yours truly and plenty of other pundits had the Jets pegged not just as a playoff squad, but a bonafide championship contender. I’m certainly not going that far this time around. Colorado looks to again be the cream of the Central Division crop, and Minnesota might not be that far behind. Nashville, St. Louis and Dallas should also be competitive, while lowly Chicago and Arizona will likely be left in everyone’s dust by Christmas.

Batting for third place or one of the Western Conference’s two wild-card spots is likely the best-case scenario for Winnipeg. But a fresh approach and a clean slate, combined with an impressive core and arguably the best goalie in the world, should be reason for optimism.

I may be on a bit of a Rocky Mountain high, but I feel grounded in reality in predicting the Jets are going to be playing meaningful hockey next spring.

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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