WINNIPEG — “Seismic change?”
Rick Bowness was quick to joke that he was called worse when asked how Kevin Cheveldayoff, general manager of Winnipeg Jets, described the decision to overhaul the coaching staff this off-season.
But for a man who admits he doesn’t like labels, it’s clear that the new Jets head coach will have to make a big impact on his new team for Winnipeg to return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“Listen, I’m a coach, that’s all I know how[to do]so whatever I’m called, I’ll come out and just do my thing,” said Bowness, whose enthusiasm was on full blast. on display during two lesson sessions on Thursday. “The reasonable goal is that we don’t have a choice, we have to prepare for the season. So as we talked to the players, every day you come to the rink you better be ready to work, you better be ready to think, you better be ready to buy in .
“Because that’s what it all comes down to on October 14: who bought the most, who worked the most, who paid the most attention and who is on the page. It’s all inclusive. It’s all in means paying attention every day.”
To no one’s surprise, the man who has been involved in the NHL game for five decades (and still is) as a player or coach is up to the challenge.
No, this isn’t a strict, my-way-or-the-highway approach — Bowness is far too strong a communicator to come across that way — but on the first day of the ice sessions at training camp, no one had road map needed to see the Jets going in a different direction.
When Bowness says players are going into the season with a clean slate, it’s not just lip service.
Any previous hierarchy that existed is out of the window, Ice Age will be doled out on merit.
Whether you’re a veteran player looking for a better role or a youngster trying to become an NHL regular, Bowness is looking for players who will leave a lasting impression.
“We missed the playoffs last year, so it’s wide open,” said Bowness. “Everything goes for me. We’ve got a new coaching staff, I’ve seen a lot of these guys (as a coach of the opponent), so everybody comes in here and thinks ‘oh, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do that, it’s a given’ — that is not a given.
“We missed the play-offs. We have a new staff so we’re going to take a good look at everyone. And the guys that we see and see in practice, we’re going to take a good look at them.”
Just a week after the public announcement that veteran Blake Wheeler captain had been stripped of the captain’s armband, Jets players weighed in publicly on the topic. While the requisite respect was paid for the work he did in that role, you also got the sense that some players were definitely looking forward to the opportunity to have a louder voice in this collective effort.
“I am an older man now. I’m 26. I’m ready to take a little more responsibility and I think we have a lot of guys here who are ready to take that step,” said Nikolaj Ehlers. “To own 25 guys, I think that goes a long way. I haven’t been the loudest man in the room. I’m trying to do my best there and show it on the ice, but I think I’ve realized I also have things to say and I’m ready to take that step.”
A change with who carries the letters isn’t the only shift in philosophy to be made with the new coaching staff.
Not only are the Jets planning to play an aggressive style in all three zones, Bowness expects his blue-liners to be much more involved after combining just 24 goals last season.
That doesn’t mean the Jets intend to be careful and raise the risk profile significantly – the attackers will have to do their part in terms of coverage for this plan to succeed.
Jets goalkeeper Connor Hellebuyck would like to see this plan implemented and not just because it should make life a little easier for him when it comes to the volume and quality of shots he encounters.
“I will do everything I can to win matches,” said Hellebuyck. “When a new coach comes in with a proven philosophy, I go with it, so I’m pretty excited about where we’re going and this is just the beginning.”
Finally, on a day when optimism is the predominant mood and excitement is a word thrown around by just about anyone who steps in front of a microphone, Cheveldayoff was basically letting the rest of the NHL know that he remains open for business.
Yes, the relative inactivity this offseason can be seen as a vote of confidence to his core group – and in many ways it was – but that doesn’t mean Cheveldayoff isn’t still actively looking for ways to improve this team, perhaps even before the season begins on October 14 against the New York Rangers.
“Some things also have to play out. There’s going to be opportunity and competition here, so things could change,” Cheveldayoff said. “You can’t turn the things that are sitting here right now into a crystal ball. I’m sure this group knows it has something to prove.”
This was not Cheveldayoff’s attempt to publicize his players, that’s not his style, but the message he delivered was similar to the one Bowness wrote later in the afternoon.
Last season’s results just weren’t good enough and things will have to change soon.
“I feel like we have a playoff team. But whether I feel it or you feel it, they have to feel it,” Cheveldayoff said. “We were here 12 months ago and the general consensus on the team was not whether we would make the playoffs it was about how many rounds this team should win Something got lost in translation along the way You have to earn that right to make the playoffs These guys feel that now.
“There are a lot of really great pieces in this team. Becoming a team is all about putting those pieces together. It’s about coming together as a team. It’s about playing for each other. It’s about all those kinds of things. You can have all the parts, but you have to put it together.”
As for the storyline surrounding this group and the string of players with contracts expiring in the summer of 2024, Cheveldayoff had no interest in going down that road.
“I don’t think we’re focusing on anything other than what’s right in front of us,” Cheveldayoff said. “We’re starting to talk about two years from now, (there’s) so much runway between now and then. Of course, in the kick-off meetings, we discussed setting a standard and pushing each other to keep that standard high.”
Achieving and maintaining that standard is certainly on the minds of the players as they don’t want a repeat of last season when the Jets failed to meet both internal and external expectations.
“We talked about it until we were blue in the face, really, about frustrated and disappointed last season, feeling that we underperformed and that we could have achieved more, so now it’s kind of up to us,” said Jets defender Josh Morrissey. “We have a new staff who are excited, we are excited and we will get another chance to show that we are a good team and that we are a team that can make the play-offs in our minds.
“As a player, that’s the confidence you want from your organization. Now it’s time for us to buy into the systems, buy into our coaching staff and move to another level that we think we have and can achieve.”