Remarkable start shows Jets for real Twenty games into season Bowness has team among NHL’s elite
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Resilient. Resourceful. And rarely dull.
That sums up your Winnipeg Jets through the first 20 games of the NHL season. There’s plenty to like about the current state of the scrappy club, which has clearly responded to new head coach Rick Bowness in a significant way and looks to be playing the kind of hockey that can lead to sustainable success.
A 13-6-1 record is tops in the Central Division by win percentage, third in the Western Conference (behind Vegas and surprising Seattle) and fifth overall in the league. And this has been accomplished despite having not one, not two, but three core forwards all go under the knife so far.
“Obviously, we have high-end talent here and we have the ability to win games playing a loose style. But we’re winning them playing the right way,” Jets defenceman and leading scorer Josh Morrissey was saying Sunday night in Chicago following a dominant 7-2 victory to wrap up a three-game road trip.
“It’s nice to see us get rewarded for doing that, and you see that start to work and all of the sudden, you’re like, ‘Wow, this is really how we have to play.’ And it gives us a chance to win every night.”
Perhaps general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff wasn’t guilty of hyperbole when, asked in training camp about a lack of roster turnover, he suggested bringing in the beloved veteran bench boss represented a “seismic” change.
It’s sure starting to look that way, isn’t it? And with a quarter of the season now in the rear-view mirror, these Jets appear to be the real deal.
Sure, the 23rd-ranked power play could use some improvement. Watching them try to lock down a late-game lead with the opponent’s goalie pulled is not for the faint of heart. Hey, that’s part of their charm.
Here are three key takeaways from my perspective:
TAKIN’ CARE OF BUSINESS IN BOTH ENDS OF THE RINK:
There’s been a noticeable improvement and obvious commitment to being a lot more neat and tidy in front of their goaltender. The end result is just 53 goals allowed through 20 games, good for sixth-best in the league.
All this fine work is helping to fuel the offensive attack, as a more aggressive, up-tempo style that encourages defenceman to join the rush is paying off.
Consider this: Winnipeg has 46 points from blue-liners so far (10 goals, 36 assists), an average 2.30 points per game. Last year they averaged just 1.98 points per game from the rearguards.
Shots from the points now have a lot more punch given how forwards are going to the so-called dirty areas to get deflections and rebounds.
Those are the type of goals Winnipeg seemed to give up far too often, while they tried to get way too cute at the other end. Now, they have become part of their DNA, which is exactly how Bowness wants it.
“We’re a more mature team in the way that we play the game and the systems we play are systems, whether you feel your best or not, you have a chance to win every night,” said Morrissey. “I think with the coaching staff, it’s a simple game plan where we are all well-prepared every night and the guys are buying in.”
Axel Jonsson-Fjallby was a waiver wire pickup at the very end of training camp. On Sunday night against the Blackhawks, he was skating on Winnipeg’s top line beside Pierre-Luc Dubois and Kyle Connor.
Mikey Eyssimont, Dominic Toninato and Jansen Harkins were all sent to the Manitoba Moose following training camp and had to clear waivers just to get there. All three were in the lineup against Chicago. Harkins scored for a second straight game. Toninato had a helper. Eyssimont did too, while also getting a spot on the second power-play unit.
The “next man up, plug-and-play” mentality is paying dividends.
“We talk about it, we want all five guys on the ice to look the same without the puck and it doesn’t matter if you’re top-six or bottom-six or whatever it is,” said Morrissey. “Without the puck, we have our standards that we want to play like.
There were major question marks coming into the campaign about whether there was enough forward depth, and that was before Nikolaj Ehlers, Mason Appleton and Morgan Barron got hurt.
It looks like we have our answer.
“You look at the best teams every year. Oftentimes, the top lines, they want to cancel each other out,” Dubois said Sunday. “Every year in the playoffs, you always see the unsung heroes who make the difference in the playoffs. It’s not just a switch you turn on come playoff time. You have to work hard all season.”
THE STARS ARE SHINING:
Your highest-paid players need to perform. And there’s no question Winnipeg is getting plenty of bang for its buck in that department.
Morrissey, named the NHL’s Second Star of the Week on Monday, leads the team in scoring with 23 points. Only two defencemen in the NHL — Erik Karlsson and Adam Fox — have put up more offence than him.
Mark Scheifele has 11 goals. Dubois 10. Connor has shaken off an unlucky start and is up to eight, including six in the last six games. It’s not a reach to suggest all three players could hit the 40-goal mark, which would be quite something.
A much-needed development, to say the least, with Ehlers missing the last 18 games and counting and likely sidelined for another couple of months as a result of a sports hernia.
Blake Wheeler, stripped of the captaincy, looks like there’s been a weight taken off his shoulders. He has 16 points and hasn’t lost his elite vision and passing ability.
All of these players have really come up clutch when it counts, as proven by Winnipeg’s stellar 6-1 record in overtime.
Last, but certainly not least, is Connor Hellebuyck. He once again looks to be in Vezina Trophy form, and that’s bad news for the rest of the NHL.
“The grey area in our game is not there as much as it was, for sure,” said Morrissey. “So regardless of who your opponent is, there’s a clear guideline of what you’re trying to do on the ice, what we’re trying to accomplish, and it doesn’t really matter so much who we’re playing, whether it’s Dallas or Colorado or a team that’s struggling.”
Looking ahead, I’m curious to see if crowds will start picking up at Canada Life Centre.
Sure, they’ve had a pair of sellouts (Saturday night games against Toronto and Pittsburgh), but there have been games with close to 2,000 empty seats.
The on-ice product is rock-solid. It appears True North is taking steps to address concerns that many have expressed — including yours truly — about the steep cost of going to a game.
Starting this week, the organization is introducing $49 Ticket Tuesdays, where you get a seat and a beer for a discount price. It’s a great deal to see an exciting team that has shown it can hang with the hockey heavyweights, with the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche up first as the Jets kick off a four-game homestand.
One thing has become crystal clear through the first quarter of the season: Bowness won’t allow the foot to come off the gas pedal and for this group to get comfortable and over-confident.
“I think we’ve done a good job to continually work to get better and not be satisfied,” Connor said Sunday.
“We’re sitting obviously in a good spot in the standings, where we want to be, right near the top and battling for the top every night. But we’re constantly trying to look at different areas where we can improve. So I would say we’re hungry. It’s a good start.”
I’d go even further than that. Given pre-season expectations and all they’ve endured so far, it’s quite remarkable, really.
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.