As Jets look to solidify roster, time will tell if players can sustain up-tempo style

Winnipeg Jets head coach Rick Bowness discusses how the team has been adjusting under his new system and speaks about their good practice habits and positive attitudes.

BANFF, Alberta - The subject of identity building has been an interesting one around these parts.

For much of the past three seasons, the Winnipeg Jets were a team that was trying to play faster and be tougher to play against - though not necessarily in the rugged or physical way that once defined them.

This isn’t a history lesson, nor is the goal of the column to revisit the challenges the organization endured as they slipped from a legitimate Stanley Cup threat to one that had seemingly lost its way.

For a franchise that is feeling plenty of urgency to turn things around after winning just one playoff round since advancing to the Western Conference final in the spring of 2018, something had to give.

The hiring of veteran head coach Rick Bowness brought a shift in philosophy and a fresh voice at the helm.

When training camp began late last month, the spotlight was on how this group of players would respond to a hockey life who exudes energy and demands a commitment to a sound defensive structure.

Without full buy-in from the players on the roster, even a tried-and-true template is doomed to fail.

That hasn’t been an issue.

“The attitudes, the work habits, the coming to the rink ready to work has been outstanding since Day 1,” Bowness told a trio of reporters during an interview on Sunday. “A lot of that has to do with missing the playoffs. It hurts, and it’s a long, long summer. And you don’t want to do it again.”

When you suffer the level of disappointment the Jets went through last season and when high hopes turned into a long offseason of dashed dreams, the perspective gained from the struggles can be a valuable tool and open up a world of possibilities.

Instead of offering resistance to this new template, the Jets have embraced the aggressive systems that are being installed, recognizing they could play right into their strengths.

“It’s a lot more on our toes,” said Jets defenceman Dylan DeMelo. “Last year I felt like in the neutral zone we were sitting back a little bit. Our forecheck, maybe we had F1 but we didn’t have F2. It seems like guys are really skating. That’s something we’re going to have to continue to work on.

“Short shifts, a team game. You don’t extend your shift looking for offence. You get off, get some fresh guys out there and keep our legs, roll four lines. It’s going to be a work in progress. We still have a lot of work to do.”

By convincing this group that using its collective speed can be a weapon when playing with and without the puck, there have been signs that those high-danger chances the Jets have been allowing with great frequency the past two seasons could be reduced - perhaps even dramatically this year.

Part of that has to do with being more decisive and making better reads, but the Jets are also committed to being tougher on zone entry denials and applying more back pressure - which should ultimately help force turnovers and allow the Jets to get their transition game going the other way.

“If you want to be hard to play against in this league, you’ve got to pressure the opposition,” said Bowness. “I tell them every line has to look the same when we don’t have the puck. Do we expect everyone to back check? Absolutely. There’s no free pass here. Absolutely not.

“Everyone has to back pressure. Everyone has to come back into our zone. When we don’t have the puck, we should all look the same. Different skill sets when we have (the puck), and they have a little more freedom and you have to give your elite players that. But when we don’t have it, there’s no two sets of rules. It’s one rule. Everyone is on the same page and everyone is working to get it back.”

Following Friday’s pre-season finale against the Calgary Flames, the Jets have spent a couple of days in this idyllic tourist town, mixing in some fishing and golf as part of the team-building process.

They’ll return to the ice on Monday morning at Fenlands Arena to prepare for Friday’s season opener against the New York Rangers.

As for the opening day roster, the Jets are down to one decision - barring a late trade - after forward Jansen Harkins was placed on waivers.

Either Harkins will report to the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League or he’ll join another organization, like fellow homegrown draft pick Johnny Kovacevic, a defenceman who was claimed off waivers by the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday.

That leaves the Jets with two goalies, nine defencemen and 13 forwards - with one move coming on the back end.

Monday’s session should provide a few more clues on which way Bowness and his staff are leaning toward the opening-day roster.

Provided Pierre-Luc Dubois and Mason Appleton are back from minor injuries and full participants, the lines and D pairings used should shed some light on who has nailed the third line left-wing spot, what the composition of the fourth line looks like and which one of Dylan Samberg, Ville Heinola, Logan Stanley and Kyle Capobianco are on a pairing with Nate Schmidt or Neal Pionk.

Since neither Stanley or Capobianco were on waivers Sunday, the Jets are expected to reassign one of Samberg or Heinola to the minors - at least for the time being.

No matter what decision is made, it’s important to remember that the competition is ongoing and things can change relatively quickly, depending on the circumstances.

The guy who plays in Game 1 isn’t necessarily in the lineup for Game 10, let alone Game 82.

Having quality options at your disposal is a good problem to have.

“You got to go through it and you’ve got to get down to 23. At this time of the year, there’s no easy way,” said Bowness. “No one has played their way out of here, but someone has to leave. It’s that simple.”

The topic of leadership was another thing that was generating plenty of buzz heading into training camp and while Bowness wasn’t ready to reveal the letter carriers for this season, he did concede there would be three alternate captains named when the announcement gets made.

For those keeping track at home, Josh Morrissey, Mark Scheifele and Adam Lowry wore the As on Friday night and are looking like the favourites to handle the job, though Bowness has been happy with what he’s seen from the entire group to date.

Which brings us back to the question of identity.

Of course, it’s going to take some more time before the Jets establish what type they’re going to be this season and whether they’ll succeed at playing faster with regularity, being tougher to play against and showing they can do a better job of locking things defensively while not sacrificing too much offensively.

Once they fully figure out what they’re supposed to look like, that’s when the Jets will know if this aggressive and up-tempo style is one they can master and ultimately sustain.

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