Finishing ugly would force a full Jets makeover
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Rick Bowness’s words were damning enough as he once again took some of his top players to task following another no-show, this time to the lowly San Jose Sharks
“Some of these guys think they’re giving us everything in their tank, they’re dreaming,” the Winnipeg Jets head coach growled after Tuesday’s embarrassing 3-0 loss to the NHL’s worst team.
“There comes a point when your personal pride has to take over,” he hissed a few minutes later.
Oh, boy. But it was the obvious eye roll and lip bite — or was it his tongue? — Bowness displayed when he was presented with comments made by struggling centre Mark Scheifele. His expressions really cemented what has become painfully clear around here.
This core, as currently constructed, is a dysfunctional mess. And a day of reckoning is fast approaching for the Jets, one that would actually be helped if they were to complete their protracted free fall, miss the playoffs entirely and begin what is shaping up to be the most fascinating offseason in franchise history as soon as possible.
Fortunately, they appear to be well on their way to making that happen.
With seven regular-season games remaining (starting Friday night against the visiting Detroit Red Wings), the Jets are just two points ahead of the Calgary Flames and three up on the Nashville Predators — who have two games in hand — for the final wildcard spot.
Bowness went on to tell reporters in northern California that with a once-promising season rapidly slipping away, “We’re going to find out what we’re made of over the next little while.”
With apologies to the veteran bench boss, I’d suggest we already have more than enough evidence to draw conclusions. And not just from this current campaign, but from the larger body of evidence dating back to the crash-landing in 2018-19, and a similar plummet last year.
This is what they are. This is who they are.
“There comes a point when your personal pride has to take over.”–Rick Bowness
True North hoped a fresh approach from a new coach might produce different results. And, for a while, that appeared to be the case. The Jets were flying high, flirting with first place in both the Central Division and Western Conference despite a litany of injuries to the lineup.
Unfortunately, a return to mostly full health also triggered a return to plenty of old, selfish habits that die hard, ones that began to rear their ugly heads as soon as the going started to get tough. And the visceral reaction from Bowness to Scheifele’s comments that the team “could definitely generate some more high-quality chances and not just shoot everything” was clearly a breaking point.
My goodness, if looks could kill…
Scheifele has gone completely MIA since Bowness stapled him to the bench for more than half a period seven games ago. No goals, one measly assist and three games without a single shot on net. He appeared headed to a fourth on Tuesday night, producing absolutely nothing until the deficit was already 2-0 — thanks, in part, to a ghastly third period turnover by him and Blake Wheeler. Scheifele then fired three pucks at the Manitoba-born goalie James Reimer with the game essentially out of reach.
Way too little. Way too late.
Any good vibes and goodwill Bowness’ arrival brought last July has clearly vanished. We are seeing a coach — one with more than four decades of experience in this league — at his breaking point. He appears out of words, and out of answers.
To be clear, he doesn’t escape responsibility here. Some of his recent lineup decisions are head-scratchers, from reducing the role and ice time of the dynamic winger Nikolaj Ehlers to continuing to lean on Wheeler in a top-six forward role when it’s clear the ex-captain is no longer fit for such duty.
Primary scoring and the power play have gone ice cold, the fourth line tries hard but generates no offence and defenceman Neal Pionk appears lost at times, yet keeps being rolled out for big minutes and opportunity. Meanwhile, forward Jansen Harkins is burning up the American Hockey League (21 goals, 21 assists in 36 games with the Manitoba Moose) but seemingly has run out of chances with the big club. Defenceman Ville Heinola is once again impressing in the minors, too, but can’t get a sniff, either.
Jets players are not on the same page, not pulling in the same direction. Plenty of noses are likely out of joint, too.
Of course, some of that also falls on the shoulders of general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, whose seat should be getting hotter with every passing game. There’s no question an extreme makeover is coming to this roster, rather by choice or by force, with Scheifele, Wheeler, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Connor Hellebuyck all able to pursue unrestricted free agency by the summer of 2024.
Whether Cheveldayoff is allowed to oversee all of that remains to be seen. But if this year ends the way it appears to be headed, he shouldn’t.
Scheifele already looks like he’s got one foot out the door. Dubois is likely headed for Montreal. Wheeler looks like there’s just nothing left in the tank. And poor Hellebuyck is being thrown to the wolves on a nightly basis. Why in the world would he want to sign on the dotted line for more of the same?
“Some of these guys think they’re giving us everything in their tank, they’re dreaming.”–Rick Bowness
Former coach Paul Maurice was far from perfect. But we’re now seeing that he was hardly the main problem. Nor was Dave Lowry, who took over in an interim role after Maurice had seen enough and resigned in frustration. At some point, the buck has to stop with the guy in charge of assembling what is clearly a flawed roster and had done only some minor tinkering.
I also wonder what the future holds for Bowness, who reportedly signed a two-year deal with a club option for a third. Has he already seen enough, deciding that perhaps the retirement he thought he was headed toward after leaving Dallas at the end of last year is a lot more enjoyable than the current mess he now finds himself in?
It would be difficult to blame him.
Sure, the Jets could manage to briefly stop the bleeding over the final two weeks and squeak into the postseason. But hold off on the celebratory parade. The “reward” will be a first-round matchup with one of the Vegas Golden Knights, Los Angeles Kings, Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota Wild, Colorado Avalanche or Dallas Stars, which would probably only delay the inevitable by four or five games.
The fear should be that scenario would essentially mask some of the gaping wounds in the organization, ones that have been routinely tended to with Band-Aids, and usher in more of the same. At this point, major surgery is the best way to treat the patient.
Get out the scalpels. It’s time to start cutting deep.
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 Wednesday, March 29, 2023 5:32 PM CDT: Fixes typo