Jets’ poor performance means big changes are needed
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It didn’t take long for the most interesting offseason in Winnipeg Jets history to take flight.
And a no-holds-barred approach from veteran coach Rick Bowness in the immediate aftermath of Thursday’s embarrassing, playoff-ending defeat in Las Vegas should only accelerate — at Mach speed — what has become so obvious around here.
The status quo has got to go.
A pathetic Game 5 performance in which several members of the Jets looked like they already were thinking about their tee times or tropical vacations was clearly the last straw for Bowness, who was brought in last summer with the idea of injecting accountability to a core that had been coddled and pampered for too long.
It worked — until it didn’t.
“It’s the same crap we saw in February,” Bowness told colleague Jeff Hamilton in a post-game media session for the ages.
“As soon as we were challenging for first place and teams were coming after us, we had no pushback. This series, we had no pushback. Their better players were so much better than ours, it wasn’t even close.”
He’s looking at you, Pierre-Luc Dubois, who had a great view of the first three Vegas goals on Thursday given that he was on the ice but seemingly had no interest in doing anything to prevent them. Same for you, Kyle Connor, who could have been a difference-maker in this series but disappeared for long stretches.
Mark Scheifele isn’t off the hook either, despite suffering an upper-body injury early in Game 4. He hadn’t done nearly enough up until that point, continuing the kind of infuriating play that caused Bowness to bench him (and Connor) as the Jets began their free-fall after the All-Star break.
Dubois and Scheifele may have both played their last games with Winnipeg, and I don’t imagine Bowness will be giving glowing performance reviews about either to his bosses. The team’s maddeningly inconsistent top two centres can both explore unrestricted free agency by next summer, and a change of scenery is likely best for everyone at this point.
Goalie Connor Hellebuyck wasn’t at his best in this series, but he didn’t exactly have a ton of help in front of him. He’s also a pending UFA by 2024, and who could blame the former Vezina Trophy winner if he has zero interest sticking around for what just might end up being an extreme roster makeover.
Like Dubois and Scheifele, trading him this summer is likely the best move if he’s not going to sign a long-term extension. It’s what the organization did with Jacob Trouba. Going into next season, a key player on the cusp of walking away for nothing is risky business. Sure, you could flip them at the trade deadline, but what if they get injured before then?
We also may be at the end of the road for former captain Blake Wheeler, who is still signed for one more year but will be 37 next fall and due to make US $8.25 million. A buyout or trade may ultimately be best for business.
There are other important personnel decisions to be made as well with the idea of improving a clearly flawed squad.
Nate Schmidt (US $5.95 million) and Neal Pionk (US$5.875 million) are both making a lot more than they’re worth, while also holding down spots that young Manitoba Moose defencemen such as Ville Heinola, Declan Chisholm and Leon Gawanke might be able to fill at a fraction of the cost and with far more upside.
Which brings us to Kevin Cheveldayoff, and the burning question of whether he should be the one allowed to oversee this all-important next phase of the Jets.
When teams come up short, as Winnipeg did once again this year, blame typically falls in one of three corners. The coach, for failing to get the most out of his players. The players, for failing to play to their potential. Or the general manager, for not doing enough to build a competitive roster.
There’s plenty of finger-pointing to go around, but Bowness is the least culpable, to my eyes. He’s not a miracle-worker, and it’s clear he started to experience the same things that Paul Maurice (who finally had enough and quit mid-season) and Dave Lowry got a first-hand look at during their tenures.
Given his searing comments and visible frustration, I wonder if the 68-year-old who battled COVID and related complications during the season will decide he’d rather enjoy retirement than the three-ring circus that has become the Jets coaching gig. Who could blame him if he did?
It’s clear who Bowness thinks is responsible, given the truth bombs directed at his players. For the first half of this season, it seemed like they might be able to contend, as hard work and attention to detail became staples. But then, old selfish habits began to creep in, the losses started to mount, and it was déjà vu all over again. The “real” Jets began to reappear, warts and all.
Some of these athletes have shown they are simply not very coachable, regardless of who’s calling the shots.
And that’s where it falls on Cheveldayoff, who is going to have a hard time living down his trade deadline news conference from March 3, in which he declared that the Jets had the necessary players “to take us to the championship here.”
As it turned out, this fragile group barely had the horses to sneak into the playoffs as the second wild card and win but a single game in the best-of-seven series. They were the first team to be eliminated, and the only one not to force at least a sixth game.
Sure, they had some terrible luck in the injury department, with Josh Morrissey going down in Game 3, Scheifele in Game 4 and Nikolaj Ehlers only available in Game 5. But with Ehlers back in the lineup on Thursday and Vegas without two of its top defencemen due to injury and illness in Shea Theodore and Brayden McNabb, Winnipeg rolled over and played dead with its season on the line. That’s pretty telling.
This is not a championship-calibre club. Not even close. And after getting to the Western Conference Final five years ago (and losing in eerily similar fashion to Vegas in that round), a Stanley Cup seems as far away as ever.
The Jets still have just three playoff series victories in Cheveldayoff’s 12 years, and this ultimately forgettable campaign was filled with questionable decisions that included losing promising young blue-liner Johnathan Kovacevic (Montreal) and Mikey Eyssimont (San Jose, then traded to Tampa Bay) for absolutely nothing in return on waivers.
Yes, the same Eyssimont who had a goal and an assist and was named first star as the Lightning kept their season alive with a 4-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs. Boy, the Jets sure could have used Eyssimont’s energy and heart a few hours later in Sin City.
Now, we’ve come to a major crossroads with the future of so many stars up in the air.
Bringing Cheveldayoff back for a 13th season will send a “business as usual” message in this market. Good luck selling that to fans this summer as part of an aggressive new season ticket campaign, which comes after a year in which there were more than 1,200 empty seats per game on average.
No doubt many, just like Bowness, are feeling “disappointed and disgusted.” So now the question is what ownership is going to do about it.
Trying to apply yet another shiny coat of paint when it’s clear the foundation is so deeply flawed would be a massive mistake. There must be tangible changes, along with full transparency about both the short and long-term vision from the organization so fans don’t feel like they’re being strung along.
Memo to Mark Chipman, David Thomson and company: blow it up. Then begin the process of cleaning up what has become one heck of a mess.
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 Friday, April 28, 2023 6:52 AM CDT: Minor copy editing changes
Updated on Friday, April 28, 2023 4:00 PM CDT: Adds videos and updates page layout