Jets’ problem not behind the bench
Playoff success of Maurice and Lowry indicate team has serious longstanding issues that need to be addressed
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Imagine, if you will, a trio of past and present Winnipeg Jets coaches walking into a bar.
No question Paul Maurice, Dave Lowry and Rick Bowness would have plenty of common ground to cover as they tipped back a frosty pint or two. There’d likely be plenty of knee-slappers served up, and no shortage of salty language as they swapped stories — and perhaps drowned a few sorrows — when it comes to their experiences with the local shinny squad.
Heck, if True North is looking at alternative revenue streams, they could do a lot worse than throwing that fantasy hot stove session on pay-per-view. It would be a licence to print money. Just make sure to slap an R rating on it.
Of course, only Bowness would actually have any free time to meet right now.
Maurice and Lowry are otherwise engaged, with their new hockey clubs still in the thick of the hunt for the Stanley Cup. Which brings me to the point of today’s offering of truth serum, one that has become crystal clear over the past few weeks.
Coaching isn’t anywhere close to the main problem when it comes to the Jets.
I’m not sure even the greatest of all time, Scotty Bowman, and a support staff that included fellow Hall of Famers Al Arbour and Toe Blake would have been able to take this talented but flawed team much, if any, further. And it’s a fool’s game to point the finger of blame squarely behind the bench for all that has ailed this group in recent seasons.
The fact Maurice and Lowry have gone on to find immediate success in another market should be Exhibit A that they were unfortunate casualties of the climate, and not the root cause.
Please don’t mistake this as me suggesting Maurice should still be calling the shots around here. He shouldn’t. If anything, he likely remained in place too long, with it becoming crystal clear his message had grown as sour as spoiled milk.
As he’s shared in a number of interviews this year, including one with the Free Press last November upon his return to Winnipeg, the passion no longer burned. The joy level was extremely low. By extension, he ended up contributing to some of the very issues which remain to this day.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t reflect well on the organization that they seemed unable, or unwilling, to see this, and were only bailed out by Maurice throwing himself on his sword and resigning.
All those scorching hot takes that Maurice was a lousy leader certainly haven’t aged well, as he guided his Florida Panthers to a massive first-round upset over the top-seeded Boston Bruins and now has them on the cusp of eliminating the heavily favoured Toronto Maple Leafs with a 3-0 series lead.
The big difference for Maurice is that he currently has a talented core willing to do whatever it takes, one that clearly responds well to being challenged (as he did late in the regular season with a very public and very profane in-game explosion that would have left a sailor blushing).
That might have worked here in Winnipeg, but core Jets players had long since tuned him out. Maurice, one of the NHL’s best motivators, is back to having a receptive audience.
As for Lowry, he never really stood a chance with this group. Maurice’s assistant was put in a near-impossible spot as interim coach, the way a substitute teacher is in a no-win situation dealing with a group of rowdy, entitled students who have decided no authority figure is going to tell them how to conduct themselves.
The fact he had his son, Adam, on the team made it even worse. As much as he tried to instill much-needed change with his troops, it was mostly falling on deaf ears.
Fortunately, Lowry was given a second chance in Seattle, as an associate coach with the second-year organization. After a major first-round upset of the defending Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, the Kraken now have a 2-1 series lead over the Dallas Stars.
Lowry has played a significant role, as head coach Dave Hakstol told me earlier this year. He was thrilled to add such an experienced voice to their group.
Which brings us to Bowness, who I happen to think he was a great hire. True North did well to land him, especially when their No. 1 target, Barry Trotz, ultimately said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” before eventually taking the general manager position with the Nashville Predators.
Bowness was a breath of fresh air, and for the first few months seemingly had the magic touch. Then the honeymoon phase ended and Bowness, not unlike Lowry and Maurice before him, ran into many of the same obstacles as this past season wore on.
Bad habits began to return. Selfish play once again reared its ugly head. Players began to cheat for offence and sacrifice strong play in their own end. Fractures began to re-appear. No amount of system changes or tricks from a coach’s playbook could stave off the inevitable internal combustion and collapse.
Bowness, with more than four decades of NHL experience as a player and a coach, likely saw things from this team he’d never seen from a group of players before. He got a firsthand lesson at how fragile they are when he called his players out following their putrid season-ending playoff performance in Vegas, only to have it backfire.
The “pushback” he didn’t see in Game 5 came in spades at the year-end media availabilites, with several of them expressing disappointment their bench boss went public. Funny, you never heard a similar peep from the Panthers when Maurice read them the riot act on the bench.
We know Bowness is coming back for a second season. It could — and, in fact, should — be to preside over a much different-looking roster. The degree of change likely rests on how this critical summer plays out for the franchise when it comes to core members such as Connor Hellebuyck, Mark Scheifele, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Blake Wheeler.
Hopefully, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and his bosses now realize that, regardless of who is calling the shots, there are serious, long-standing issues when it comes to culture and attitude which must be addressed if this team is to essentially get out of its own way.
Otherwise, expect history to keep repeating itself with good opportunities — and good people — being wasted.
Imagine, if you will, a Florida vs. Seattle Stanley Cup Final.
I’ll drink to that!
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.