Jets begin long road back Will fresh approach from new coaching staff be enough for team to evolve into legitimate force following disappointment of last season?

Oh, what a difference a year can make.

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Opinion

Oh, what a difference a year can make.

As the Winnipeg Jets gathered for training camp last September, there was no shortage of excitement and optimism in the air. They were viewed by plenty of pundits across the league as a legitimate playoff team, one that had bolstered its blue line during a productive summer and had a rock-solid core ready to compete for a championship.

What looked to be a deep, talented roster with multiple stars in the prime of their careers created high hopes around here.

“The opportunity for maximum success is now,” I wrote in my 2021-22 preview. “There are no mitigating circumstances. No built-in excuses.”

History shows Winnipeg came up woefully short, missing the playoffs for the seventh time in the 11 years since the NHL returned to River City. A record of 39-32-11 was good for just sixth in the Central Division, 11th in the Western Conference and 19th in the NHL. Given the high bar that had been set and all that transpired, it certainly was a memorable season — for all the wrong reasons.

Winnipeg Jets General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff had a quiet summer. (John Woods / The Canadian Press files)

Veteran coach Paul Maurice quit in the middle of the season. Forward Andrew Copp was shipped out at the trade deadline. Paul Stastny walked in free agency. Kristian Vesalainen fled back to Europe. Reliable backup goalie Eric Comrie shuffled off to Buffalo. Numerous players publicly voiced displeasure. No. 1(a) centre Mark Scheifele publicly pondered his future. No. 1(b) centre Pierre-Luc Dubois did, too. Blake Wheeler was stripped of his captaincy.

You get the picture. It isn’t very pretty.

Training camp roster: (50)

Goal (6)
30 Mikhail Berdin
33 David Rittich
35 Oskari Salminen
37 Connor Hellebuyck
60 Domenic DiVincentiis
75 Arvid Holm

Goal (6)
30 Mikhail Berdin
33 David Rittich
35 Oskari Salminen
37 Connor Hellebuyck
60 Domenic DiVincentiis
75 Arvid Holm
Defence (16)
2 Dylan DeMelo
4 Neal Pionk
5 Brenden Dillon
6 Ashton Sautner
14 Ville Heinola
42 Simon Lundmark
44 Josh Morrissey
45 Declan Chisholm
52 Tyrel Bauer
54 Dylan Samberg
58 Dmitry Kuzmin
64 Logan Stanley
65 Johnathan Kovacevic
72 Leon Gawanke
77 Kyle Capobianco
88 Nate Schmidt
Forwards (28)
8 Saku Maenalanen RW
12 Jansen Harkins LW
17 Adam Lowry C
19 David Gustafsson C
21 Dominic Toninato LW
22 Mason Appleton RW
23 Mikey Eyssimont LW
26 Blake Wheeler RW
27 Nikolaj Ehlers LW
28 Kevin Stenlund C
29 Alex Limoges C
36 Morgan Barron C
39 Jeff Malott LW
40 Daniel Torgersson LW
46 Wyatt Bongiovanni C
47 Brad Lambert C^
48 Evan Polei LW*
51 Chaz Lucius C
53 Henri Nikkanen C
55 Mark Scheifele C
56 Danny Zhilkin C^
80 Pierre-Luc Dubois C
81 Kyle Connor LW
83 Nick Jones RW*
87 Kristian Reichel RW
89 Sam Gagner C
90 Cole Maier C*
91 Cole Perfetti C
^- unsigned draft pick
* – professional tryout

Fearless prediction:
Projected opening night roster.
Goal:
Hellebuyck
Rittich
Defence:
Morrissey-DeMelo
Samberg-Pionk
Dillon-Schmidt
Extra: Stanley, Heinola
Forwards:
Ehlers-Scheifele-Wheeler
Connor-Dubois-Perfetti
Barron-Lowry-Appleton
Harkins-Gustafsson-Gagner
Extra: Toninato
Knock knock knockin’ at the NHL door: Kovacevic, Chisholm, Gawanke, Reichel, Stenlund, Maenalanen

Now, as the team re-assembles following a longer-than-expected off-season, there’s a very different kind of vibe being felt around here. Forget about raising the Stanley Cup. Just sneaking into the post-season is likely going to be a major battle.

Sure, there are still some solid pieces. Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers are elite wingers, top defenceman Josh Morrissey is coming off a terrific bounce-back year and goalie Connor Hellebuyck is still Connor Hellebuyck. A surprisingly sleepy summer with no trades or impact-player additions has tempered expectations, to say the least.

Of course, you won’t hear any members of the organization say that. There’s an internal belief that last year was a “one-off,” owing to a variety of factors, such as injuries, illnesses (pretty much the entire lineup got COVID-19 in segments rather than all at once) and the abrupt coaching change, among others. The hope seems to be a few months away from the rink to lick their wounds, a fresh approach from a new coaching staff and some internal growth combined with each player bringing a big ol’ chip on his shoulder will be enough to transform the Jets into a legitimate force.

Good luck with that.

The road back to relevancy begins Wednesday at Bell MTS Iceplex with team medicals, while 50 participants hit the ice Thursday for the start of what promises to be an intense, three-week training camp where they will not only try to carve out a collective identity but also convince a skeptical fan base to come along for the ride.

Will the players buy what new head coach Rick Bowness is selling? (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The group includes 44 of Winnipeg’s own signed players, three unsigned draft picks, and three skaters on AHL deals who will be on tryouts. There are six goaltenders, 16 defencemen and 28 forwards.

They’ll start in two groups — named Team Hawerchuk and Team Steen — and take part in multiple practices, two internal scrimmages and six exhibition games before eventually trimming the roster down to a maximum of 23 players ahead of the Friday, Oct. 14 season-opener against the New York Rangers.

Join me for a closer look at the club as it begins preparations for what should be an all-important 2022-23 NHL campaign.

Key storylines:

Will they buy what Bowness is selling?: New bench boss Rick Bowness has promised to implement a much more aggressive style, one he believes will result in an increase in puck possession. That’s great in theory, but getting this notoriously stubborn group to buy in will be key. Maurice eventually got fed up with his message being seemingly ignored. Interim coach Dave Lowry had even less success. Will the 67-year-old Bowness, who was Winnipeg’s second choice after Barry Trotz said, “Thanks, but no thanks,” be able to find a way? Expect several long days at the rink, especially early in camp, as Bowness and his staff try to get everyone on board with new offensive and defensive systems.

Looking for leaders: The Jets begin the new campaign without a captain, and the plan is to have nobody wear the C until at least next year. The search for an expanded leadership group is on, with Scheifele and Morrissey expected to retain their alternate status and be joined by at least two new teammates in that role on a rotating basis. The hope is adding new voices will create a better dressing-room dynamic that will also translate to positives on the ice. Who steps up, and will it make a difference? Time will tell.

FRANK GUNN / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

Blake Wheeler has been stripped of the captaincy.

We are family: Expect significant effort to be made to bring this at-times fractured group closer together, including some team-building activities during camp and early in the year. Bowness is expected to speak more about those Thursday, but it’s all about trying to turn the page on last year, and get everyone on the same page this year to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself.

How low can they go?: Winnipeg failed to sell out a single game last season, owing to a number of factors which included both a mask and vaccine mandate. Those are now gone. Now, the biggest obstacle might be apathy given the current state of affairs. Tickets used to be extremely hard to come by in this market. Now, True North is trying to counter waning interest through increased advertising, the introduction of mini-packs and increased fan perks. You’d think putting a better product on the ice would be the top priority, given that winning is likely the best sales pitch, but the jury is still out on that.

Blasts from the past: Bowness and new associate coach Scott Arniel aren’t the only Jets 1.0 returnees. A statue of Hockey Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk will go up in True North Square outside the Canada Life Centre in what’s expected to be a moving ceremony Saturday, Oct. 1. Teemu Selanne and Teppo Numminen will be inducted into the organization’s Hall of Fame on Thursday, Nov. 17. There will be plenty of nostalgia, but no doubt fans are hoping some terrific new memories can be made with the current group as well.

Players to watch:

Mark Scheifele: Are we getting the centre who looked disinterested at times last year, especially when it came to playing in his own end where he was often a liability? Or are we getting a motivated Scheifele, one who becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2024 and will be looking for the kind of major payday he now feels he missed out on? The Jets are counting on the latter, and the 29-year-old is certainly saying all the right things in the past few weeks about channeling the chip on his shoulder. Actions will, ultimately, speak louder than words.

Which version of Mark Scheifele will show up this year? (Jeff Roberson / The Associated Press files)

Blake Wheeler: How the 36-year-old winger handles what must have felt like a slap in the face — Bowness telling him his services as team leader were no longer required — will be something to keep an eye on. Wheeler can still be an effective player in a more limited role, but the last thing Winnipeg needs is another distraction. Wheeler admitted last week a potential trade isn’t out of the question, so stay tuned on this front. It’s a delicate situation, to say the least.

Pierre-Luc Dubois: The 24-year-old appears to be betting on himself by balking at a long-term extension, at least for now. And that’s led to plenty of speculation the Quebec product is out of here the second he can bolt in free agency in 2024. As we saw at times last year, Dubois can be a difference-maker, and the Jets will need more of that from the power centre, regardless of what his future holds. They need the best version of Dubois right here, right now, and you’d think the player will be plenty motivated.

Cole Perfetti: The 20-year-old has tons of talent, but he’s coming off a pair of injuries (shoulder, back) that ended last season too early. He’s champing at the bit and will be given every opportunity to succeed. The 10th-overall pick from 2020 should be a legitimate Calder Trophy candidate as rookie-of-the-year if all goes according to plan, and that would certainly give Winnipeg’s chances for success a serious boost.

David Gustafsson: It’s time for the “Gus Bus” to permanently pull into the station. Gustafsson, 22, is too good to remain on the farm with the Manitoba Moose, and the big, young forward has nobody standing in his way when it comes to earning a full-time job, likely as the fourth-line centre and part of the penalty kill. He’s got to make the most of this golden opportunity.

David Gustafsson is too good to remain on the Manitoba Moose. (Jason Franson / The Canadian Press files)

Job prospects:

Goal: Nothing to see here, folks. Hellebuyck is the undisputed No. 1 and will be counted on to play 60-plus games this year. David Rittich is the new backup, and he’ll be looking to rebound to the kind of form he displayed that made him a 2019 All-Star in Calgary, and not last year’s forgettable year in Nashville. Obviously the better he can perform in spot duty, the more comfortable the club will be in giving Hellebuyck some rest to ensure he can stay as sharp as possible.

Forwards: There’s not a whole lot of mystery here, either. Barring any big surprises from Bowness, Scheifele, Wheeler, Dubois, Connor, Ehlers and likely Perfetti are probably going to comprise the top six in some form. Adam Lowry is the third-line centre, with Mason Appleton perhaps on one of his wings. Gustafsson, Jansen Harkins, Dominic Toninato and veteran Sam Gagner will also be in the bottom six mix. That leaves just an open spot or two for the likes of Morgan Barron, Kristian Reichel, Kevin Stenlund, Saku Maenalanen, Mikey Eyssimont, Jeff Malott and Alex Limoges to battle over. It’s possible rookies Chaz Lucius and/or Brad Lambert could work their way into the equation with strong camps, although going to the Western Hockey League (or possibly the Moose) seem like the smarter, safer plays.

Cole Perfetti is coming off a pair of injuries that ended his season too early last year. (Jack Dempsey / The Associated Press)

Defence: Barring any injuries or training camp trades — and I wouldn’t completely rule out something in that regard — Morrissey, Nate Schmidt, Neal Pionk, Brenden Dillon, Dylan DeMelo and Logan Stanley are all on the squad, in much the same roles as last year, but here’s where it gets a bit complicated. It’s hard to imagine Dylan Samberg or Ville Heinola being dispatched to the Moose once again, although neither would require waivers to go down. Other young rear-guards such as Johnathan Kovacevic and Leon Gawanke would, and you wonder how this is all going to sort itself out? Frankly, I expected a move or two to clear some space for a younger (and cheaper) player who is currently blocked. Yet nothing, at least so far, has happened on that front. Perhaps, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, always one to exercise patience, is waiting for another team to make him an offer he can’t refuse, especially if they have a key player come up lame in the pre-season. But the clock is ticking.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

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.

Training camp schedule

(All skates at Iceplex are open to the public, using Subway and ACU Arenas)

Thursday, Sept. 22
Practices, 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Bell MTS Iceplex
Friday Sept. 23
Practices, 10 a.m. and Noon, Bell MTS Iceplex
Scrimmage, 11 a.m.
Saturday Sept. 24
*Fan Fest runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Bell MTS Iceplex*
Practices, 10 a.m. and Noon, Bell MTS Iceplex
Scrimmage, 11 a.m.
Sunday, Sept. 25
Practices, (non-playing group), 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., Bell MTS Iceplex
Pre-season game 1, Jets at Edmonton, 5 p.m., Rogers Place
Monday, Sept. 26
Day Off
Tuesday, Sept. 27
Practices (non-playing group), 9 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., Bell MTS Iceplex
Morning skate (playing group), 10:30 a.m., Bell MTS Iceplex
Pre-season game 2, Jets vs Ottawa, 7 p.m., Canada Life Centre
Wednesday, Sept. 28
Practices, 11 a.m. and 1 p.m., Bell MTS Iceplex
Thursday, Sept. 29
Practice (non-playing group), 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., Bell MTS Iceplex
Pre-season game 3, Jets at Montreal, 6 p.m., Bell Centre
Friday, Sept. 30
Day Off
Saturday, Oct.1
Morning skate (playing group), 10:30 a.m., Bell MTS Iceplex
Practice (non-playing group), 12:15 p.m., Bell MTS Iceplex
Pre-season game 4, Jets vs Edmonton, 7 p.m., Canada Life Centre
Sunday, Oct.2
Practice, 11 a.m., Bell MTS Iceplex
Monday, Oct. 3 and Tuesday, Oct. 4
Practices, 10 a.m., Bell MTS Iceplex
Wednesday, Oct. 5
Morning skate (playing group), 10:30 a.m., Bell MTS Iceplex
Pre-season game 5, Jets vs. Calgary, 7 p.m. Canada Life Centre
Thursday, Oct. 6
Day Off
Friday, Oct. 7
Morning skate (playing group), 10:30 a.m., Bell MTS Iceplex
Pre-season game 6, Jets at Calgary, Scotiabank Saddledome, 8 p.m.

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