Jets training camp preview: Who will survive the battle on the back end?

Winnipeg Jets head coach Rick Bowness speaks on the team’s decision to take the captaincy away from Blake Wheeler, and why it’s just a move to get more people involved, and it doesn’t mean that they won’t expect Wheeler to help lead.

For the first time since the fall of 2014, someone other than Paul Maurice will be running training camp for the Winnipeg Jets.

And while those expected winds of change didn’t include many moves on the personnel side, it’s clear new head coach Rick Bowness is going to have a few thoughts and ideas on how things are going to be different for the next edition of the Jets.

Bowness sent shockwaves around the NHL last week when the Jets announced that longtime captain Blake Wheeler would not be wearing the C anymore.

If that decision is a sign of what is to come, this training camp could feature a number of surprises when it comes to who plays with whom and who eventually slots in on an already overcrowded blue line.

What we know for sure is that Bowness is planning to implement some stylistic tweaks when it comes to how the Jets look on the ice.

“We’re going to change the way we play. We want to be a much more aggressive team,” Bowness said last week when addressing the change to the leadership group. “We’re going to initiate more of an aggressive pressure oriented system and be a harder team to play against.”

Bowness went out of his way to reinforce that he wasn’t here last season - when the Jets underachieved and finished 11th in the Western Conference and missed the Stanley Cup playoffs by eight points - so he doesn’t know exactly where things went wrong.

But he plans to spend the pre-season getting to know his players and searching for a variety of answers to help the team move forward.

“I can tell you this, and I’ve said this before, I was very encouraged all summer talking to the players that this is a much tighter group than the perception of the room. That was very encouraging for me,” said Bowness. “Also, you could tell by their tone and their wording, they want to accept more responsibility. They’re all disappointed with what went on last year and now that’s behind us.”

The disappointment is sure to serve as a bit of a motivating factor for a team that enters the new season with much lower outside expectations than a season ago, but one that is also at a clear crossroads.

With a number of core players with contracts set to expire during the summer of 2024, there should be a high level of urgency on display, knowing what is at stake for a number of players when it comes to the future direction of this team.

“I think everyone is looking forward to it and we don’t really know what to expect,” Wheeler said last week. “You have a new coaching staff. There’s going to be some changes to how we play and some learning in training camp. But the vibe on our team is; I think we’ve got a good group of guys with a chip on their shoulder and you can see a kind of fire in our room right now. There seems to be some motivation in our room this year.”

Where that motivation leads this group remains to be seen, but this training camp should feature a few more hotly-contested roster battles than we’ve seen during the past several seasons.

Current salary cap space: $4.67 million (according to Cap Friendly)
General manager: Kevin Chevaldayoff
Head coach: Rick Bowness (first season)
Assistant coaches: Scott Arniel (associate coach), Brad Lauer, Marty Johnston, Wade Flaherty (goalie coach), Matt Prefontaine (video coach)
Unsigned players: None

ONE IMPORTANT QUESTION: How will the defence corps shake down?

The position has faced the most scrutiny during the past several seasons and the narrative surrounding the organizational depth has changed dramatically.

The Jets have gone from a group that was razor thin to one that features a host of options and that’s why many observers expected the organization to make a move to alleviate the logjam at some point this summer.

Instead, the Jets enter training camp with at least eight NHL-ready blue-liners reporting for duty and two more - Declan Chisholm and Johnny Kovacevic - ready to show they can take another step after showing well in spot duty when thrust into action last season.

Fellow defence prospect Leon Gawanke moves into the group of players looking to make his NHL debut and he’s no longer waivers exempt, but at this stage, he’s likely the 11th guy on the depth chart.

While Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is right when he says an organization would much rather have too many capable D-men than not enough, if the Jets are going to incorporate Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg into regular roles this season, a move or two is going to need to be made.

So you can be sure Cheveldayoff will continue to search for a deal that could help bolster the forward group that could benefit from a middle-six winger.

But which veteran is going to be on the move and yield the best return?

Is that an overriding factor?

If you look at how the summer played out around the league, a guy like Brenden Dillon would be on the radar for a number of teams but the Jets aren’t really interested in moving him, as he brings plenty of sandpaper and intangibles to the table for a group that doesn’t play with a whole lot of edge.

While one would expect some experimentation to take place with six exhibition games on the docket, it will be interesting to see how the pairings look on Day 1 on Thursday.

Will Bowness keep established pairs together?

Will he be looking to make alterations to his shutdown pairing?

Will he consider using Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk together or have them anchoring the top two pairings separately?

Will Dylan DeMelo remain with Morrissey or will he be asked to help ease the transition for one of Heinola or Samberg?

Where does Nate Schmidt end up after starting last season on the top pairing but finished on the third?

What about Logan Stanley, the 2016 first-rounder who endured a challenging season after working his way to become an NHL regular?

Is he ready for a bounceback campaign and might Bowness see some of the qualities in Stanley that he saw in Jamie Oleksiak during his time with the Dallas Stars?

Samberg dealt with a few tough injuries last season that disrupted his momentum - including the ankle injury he suffered on the first day off main camp - and while his pro hockey experience is limited to 79 games over the past two seasons, he’s 23 years old and ready to leave his mark.

The same goes for Heinola, whose vision and ability to transport the puck are two qualities that should serve him well as the Jets look to implement a more up-tempo and aggressive style of play.

But if Heinola and Samberg are ready to cement their spots, it means that veterans are either going to find themselves as the odd-man out or possibly moving on to a new team.

So it shouldn’t take long for the competition to heat up, which should end up bringing out the best in the group.

A TRAINING CAMP BATTLE TO WATCH: Who will be the left-winger with Adam Lowry?

One would expect Bowness to deploy the Adam Lowry line in a similar fashion to what he did in Dallas with Radek Faksa, which likely means a heavy dose of going head-to-head with the opposition’s most offensive line.

With Mason Appleton reacquired from the Seattle Kraken after being lost in the expansion draft late last season, the Jets have two-thirds of the checking-plus line set and ready to roll.

But after seeing a revolving door of left-wingers play alongside him last season, one would expect Lowry to have a more stable running mate this year.

With Jets 2017 first-rounder Kristian Vesalainen playing in Sweden this season after never finding his groove, opportunity will be knocking for someone to win that job.

The early candidates appear to be Morgan Barron (who was acquired from the New York Rangers in the deadline deal trade for Andrew Copp) and Jansen Harkins, who will be looking to leave an impression on the revamped coaching staff.

Barron has three goals and six points in 33 NHL games, but is a responsible two-way player with size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) who is looking forward to his first full NHL season.

Harkins, who has 10 goals and 22 points in 132 NHL games, needs to take a step forward this season after showing flashes previously.

Versatile forward Sam Gagner could also be a guy who factors into the discussion, should the Jets opt to use either him or Appleton on their off-wing.

Gagner is a guy who can contribute offensively but has been used in a bit more of a checking role during the past several seasons.


Cole Perfetti-Mark Scheifele-Nikolaj Ehlers
Kyle Connor-Pierre-Luc Dubois-Blake Wheeler
Jansen Harkins-Adam Lowry-Mason Appleton
Morgan Barron-David Gustafsson-Sam Gagner

Josh Morrissey-Neal Pionk
Dylan Samberg-Brenden Dillon
Ville Heinola-Nate Schmidt/Dylan DeMelo
Logan Stanley

Connor Hellebuyck
David Rittich

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