WINNIPEG – This was supposed to be the summer that the winds of change rolled through Winnipeg.
Core pieces were going to be moved, others locked down with a long-term contract that would naturally move them right into the heart of the leadership group.
The Winnipeg Jets were expected to experience a significant shake-up on the personnel side of things after a disappointing 2021-22 campaign left them out of the playoffs for the seventh time in 11 seasons since the franchise relocated from Atlanta.
Instead, the biggest move of the offseason has come behind the bench, where Rick Bowness took over from interim head coach Dave Lowry and Paul Maurice, whose mid-December departure caught players off guard and left some of them reeling as the season continued.
The hiring of Bowness came after the Jets pursued Barry Trotz, who ultimately decided to take some time off.
Although there is still expected to be a move (or two) made involving a member of an already crowded defence corps, Jets general manager Kevin Chevledayoff has given his current group a vote of confidence and he appears comfortable mostly running it back.
It’s a strategic move, though that’s not to say it comes without its share of risk.
The Jets have yet to be a major player in free agency and that didn’t come as a big surprise, though there were some value deals offered that were close but ultimately didn’t come to fruition.
Sam Gagner is a versatile veteran forward who will help mitigate the loss of Paul Stastny to the Carolina Hurricanes both on and off the ice, but he’s a complementary piece at this stage of his career.
That’s not a knock on Gagner. It’s quite the opposite.
Every team needs players like him and he’s going to help provide a boost on the secondary scoring side of things, while his ability to check and kill penalties should help in areas that require attention.
But when signing a 33-year old in early September is the splashiest move made at a time where Cheveldayoff openly said in July that he was looking to upgrade the forward position, it’s time to look under the hood.
What happened to the whispers about the Jets and captain Blake Wheeler looking for a fresh start?
They’ve quieted down considerably and while we may never know how close the two sides came to parting ways, the microscope will understandably be on Wheeler when he speaks to the media for the first time later this month.
Whether a conversation with Bowness was enough to sort the situation out or if the Jets reluctance to retain salary in any potential trade to a contender was more of an impediment is unclear a the moment, Wheeler will be reporting for camp and you can expect he will continue to be a productive player and deliver an incredibly high effort level.
Wheeler wants to win and he will be motivated to do so, even if his minutes are likely going to be reduced with the arrival of Bowness.
It’s clear from his media appearance in July that Jets centre Mark Scheifele had an epiphany and is comfortable with the direction the Jets are taking after expressing some frustration and openly questioning his future.
Highly productive and committed to two-way play Scheifele is going to be a critical piece of the Jets moving from the mushy middle to becoming a playoff team.
Scheifele isn’t happy with how last season ended and you can expect the best version of himself to be on display, as he knows full well what’s at stake for both the franchise and itself with several core pieces two years away from unrestricted free agency.
Speaking of that group, a lot of attention will be paid to fellow pivot Pierre-Luc Dubois, who made news in the summer when his agent Pat Brisson raised the possibility of his client having interest in playing for the hometown Montreal Canadiens in the future while he was still a restricted free agent.
Dubois said the situation was overblown, but he needs to back up his words with actions and build on last season, when he was a physical force and delivered one of his best seasons as a pro.
By signing a one-year deal, Dubois and the Jets simply bought themselves some time to see what the next step is going to be.
But not getting a long-term extension done means that Dubois’ future will become a front-burner issue next summer, if not sooner.
The other cornerstone piece whose contract can expire in the summer of 2024 is goalie Connor Hellebuyck and his return to elite status (with both his raw numbers to support his still strong underlying statistics) could be the most important factor in where the Jets finish next season.
That’s not to say he needs to carry the Jets on his own, but he’s another person who didn’t like how last season went and you can be sure he’s spent the summer pushing himself to do everything he can to get back to supplying Vezina-level netminding.
It’s also important to note that goal is a lot easier to achieve if the Jets stop giving up an inordinate amount of shots and scoring chances from the high-danger area in front of him.
That’s the No. 1 priority for Bowness and his coaching staff once training camp begins.
Sticking with the goalies momentarily, the arrival of David Rittich to replace Eric Comrie is another show-me situation.
Much like when Comrie earned the job, Rittich will be tasked with proving he can get back to where he once was and while the Jets don’t need him to be an All-Star, he will be counted on for somewhere in the vicinity of 20 starts to help keep Hellebuyck the workhorse fresh.
The Jets forward group has the potential to be dangerous, even after the departures of Andrew Copp, Stastny and Evgeny Svechnikov.
Despite missing 20 games last season, Nikolaj Ehlers still finished fourth on the team in goals (28) and fifth in scoring (55 points in 62 games).
Those numbers are sure to rise with Ehlers expected to see a jump in his minutes and finally get a promotion to the top power play unit.
Should he stay healthy, Ehlers is a lock to eclipse 30 goals for the first time in his career and has the ability to deliver north of 40.
Kyle Connor is coming off his best season as a pro and there’s nothing to suggest the 47 goals and 93 points he had in 79 games represent his ceiling.
Putting the puck in the net shouldn’t be an issue for this team, especially with 2020 first-rounder Cole Perfetti slated to play an important role in what will be his first full NHL season.
Though secondary scoring will need to increase somewhat, the Jets are banking on internal candidates like Morgan Barron and Jansen Harkins to augment what Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton are expected to provide.
The glut of defenceman – most of whom will be on one-way contracts and not exempt from waivers – remains the biggest surprise of the offseason.
Cheveldayoff reiterated the importance of having too many blue-liners rather than not enough – and he’s seen first hand what it’s like dealing with the latter in the shortened season of 2020 – but this logjam still needs to be alleviated and one would think this will be handled prior to the start of the regular season on Oct. 14 against the New York Rangers.
With Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg ready for full-time work, it’s hard to imagine the opening day roster includes all of Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Brenden Dillon, Nate Schmidt, Dylan DeMelo, Logan Stanley and Johnny Kovacevic as well, but it’s clear there hasn’t been a deal available that’s piqued the interest of Cheveldayoff enough for him to act (at least not yet).
When it comes to the defence corps, Pionk is a prime candidate for a bounceback season and it will be interesting to see if Bowness considers using him as a primary partner for Morrissey.
One thing the Jets do have is the ability to add another player, whether that’s through trade with a team looking to shed salary or in free agency.
With roughly $4-to-5 million of cap space available, Cheveldayoff is in a position several teams would like to be and while his patience has frustrated many members of the fan base this summer, the mood could change if that money is used to bolster the middle-six forwards.
Having flexibility and wiggle room is nice, but the Jets look like a team that still needs an upgrade to the roster to push for a playoff spot, which is why this training camp will be one of the more interesting ones to monitor in recent memory.
The Jets are in no danger of being anointed as a candidate to be the best team in Canada this season, but there is a pathway for them being better than you might think and push for a playoff spot.
The top of the Central Division features the gold standard in the Colorado Avalanche and a bunch of other competitive teams (most of whom have some flaws), but it also has the Arizona Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks rebuilding, so it’s up to the Jets to do enough on the ice to prove that they’re better than sixth and can push for third or fourth.
While the outside expectations on this group aren’t going to be nearly as high for the Jets as they were going into last season, the internal pressure and the stakes most certainly are.
This franchise is at a crossroads and needs to take a big step forward before some monumental decisions involving the core group need to be made.
Not committing to a complete tear-down was the right thing for the Jets to do for the time being, but staying with mostly the status quo means that moving back to full contender status is far from a guarantee.
If steps forward aren’t taken, those blustery winds of change could finally arrive sometime in 2023.