Nothing phoney about these Jets
Bowness has talented and deep club poised for run at NHL’s ultimate prize
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DETROIT — You can’t fake your way through half a hockey season. A few games, sure. Maybe even a few weeks. But not this long. And that’s why I’m comfortable declaring that the Winnipeg Jets, who will officially hit that midway mark here in Motown Tuesday, are very much the real deal.
There’s nothing phoney about a 26-13-1 record that is the team’s best ever through 40 games, surpassing the 52 points posted in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons. It’s been built on the back of elite goaltending, strong special teams, increased attention to defensive detail, timely (and ample) scoring, and no shortage of overcoming adversity.
Winnipeg will be looking to keep the good times rolling and extend a season-high five-game winning streak as they begin a three-game Eastern Conference road trip Tuesday in Detroit, with stops in Buffalo (Thursday) and Pittsburgh (Friday) to follow.
We’ll hear what general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff thinks about his team so far when he sits down with the travelling media later this week, speaking publicly for the first time since training camp. There will be plenty of ground to cover.
Here are my 10 key talking points based on what we’ve seen so far from this group:
1. In “Bones” they trust: Cheveldayoff wasn’t blowing smoke when he declared the hiring of Rick Bowness to be a “seismic” change for the organization. The 67-year-old has been just what the doctor ordered for a talented but flawed squad that had lost its way.
Bowness, with his “no excuses, just solutions” approach, has breathed new life into his troops and seemingly pushed all the right buttons. And now he may be rewarded with his first-ever All-Star game coaching nod. A Winnipeg victory or a Dallas loss against the New York Islanders on Tuesday will ensure the Jets have the best winning percentage in the Central Division by Wednesday’s cut off, sending Bowness down to Florida for some hockey fun in the sun in early February.
You can bet his players would love to reward him.
2. The good vibes are real: It began with pre-season team building in Banff, which included a mission statement that was created and signed by every player. And it’s clear the Jets have lived up to their pledge of accountability and discipline, of a tight-knit brotherhood both and off the ice.
It’s allowed them to seamlessly weather whatever storms have come their way without having the wheels come off, the way we’ve seen in the past around here.
3. The stars have been stellar: Josh Morrissey, Mark Scheifele, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Kyle Connor and Connor Hellebuyck have all carried their weight, and then some. The Fab Five are all on pace to set career highs in various categories. They are thriving under Bowness’ systems, responding just as you’d hope to a collective challenge to take their games to new levels and lead by example.
It’s important to remember Winnipeg’s rock-solid core may still be rather young in age compared to other contenders, but they’re already long on experience. That counts for something.
4. This team is a lot deeper than we thought: When training camp began in September, the following players weren’t even on the radar: Axel Jonsson-Fjallby. Karson Kuhlman. Kevin Stenlund. Saku Maenalanen. Kyle Capobianco. Yet all have played meaningful minutes and roles, along with a handful of others who began the season the farm such as Jansen Harkins, Kristian Reichel, Ville Heinola and Dominic Toninato.
Along with strong contributions from the likes of Adam Lowry, Morgan Barron and Sam Gagner, there’s been no shortage of players picking up the slack.
5. Here’s to good health: An injured list that once had seven names is now down to three. And Maenalanen could make it just two later this week, with Mason Appleton and Logan Stanley behind him.
Winnipeg just got Nikolaj Ehlers (36 games missed), Blake Wheeler (nine games), Nate Schmidt (nine games) and Cole Perfetti (five games) back from extended absences. Now the key is trying to stay healthy so the deepest lineup possible can hit the ice every night.
Ehlers is one of the most dynamic wingers in the NHL when he’s going. We got a glimpse of that in Sunday’s 7-4 victory where a new-look top line featuring Ehlers, Dubois and Connor combined for 10 points. Memo to the rest of the league: watch out for that trio.
6. The blue-line boost: Morrissey, the first-time All-Star, has been sensational. The entire defence group, which underwhelmed last year, has excelled under Bowness. Not only have they kept things much tidier in their own end and made life a lot less hectic for Hellebuyck (who has started 30 of 40 games), they’re also helping drive the offensive attack.
Winnipeg’s back-end is among the league leaders in goals (21), assists (81) and total points (102) so far.
7. The fans are starting to respond: It’s not quite back to the vibe of the first few seasons, but there’s a palpable buzz returning to Canada Life Centre in recent weeks. Fans clearly appreciate the effort they’re seeing, and are responding in kind both in elevating the atmosphere and the crowd count. (Five sellouts all year, with three occurring in the past five games).
Led by Bowness, this is a group that’s easy to get behind, one that seems to reflect the blue-collar mindset of the city it represents. There’s also plenty of fun being had, from individual player goal songs to cheeky team social media posts. That’s a good thing.
8. The elephant in the room: Scheifele, Dubois and Hellebuyck can all become unrestricted free agents by the summer of 2024. Wheeler, too. That should add some urgency to make the most of a wide-open window for Winnipeg, especially in a season where nobody is running away with the Western Conference. As of Tuesday, only Vegas has a better winning percentage, while Boston, Toronto and Carolina are the beasts of the East currently ahead of the Jets.
Which leads us to…
9. Will trade winds be blowing? Given how far they’ve come, and where they’d ultimately like to go, this would be the year to go “all in.” Who knows what the roster looks like a couple years from now. And, quite frankly, who cares? It should be about living in the moment and trying to beef up.
By not having to utilize long-term injured reserve this season, Winnipeg has been accruing cap space they’ll be able to weaponize by the March 4 trade deadline. Bo Horvat? Hometown boy Jonathan Toews? Why not?
10. And the award goes to….If the season ended today, Morrissey would likely be a finalist for the Norris, Hellebuyck for the Vezina and Bowness for the Jack Adams. A strong second half could also propel Perfetti into the Calder conversation. And Connor could still have a chance at a second straight Lady Byng, although his two minor penalties last Friday against Tampa (his second and third fouls of the year) won’t help the cause.
That’s all impressive. Of course, there’s one trophy that would trump all others, a certain silver chalice the entire team would love to get their hands on in June.
If the Jets can continue building off an impressive first half of the season, this fantasy scenario could become both real and spectacular.
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.
Updated on Monday, January 9, 2023 7:14 PM CST: Typo fixed