‘Glass half-full’: Despite decent start to season, Jets dissatisfied by team efforts

Winnipeg Jets head coach Rick Bowness yells at his team during third period NHL action against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Winnipeg, Saturday, October 22, 2022. (John Woods/CP)

WINNIPEG — One of the keys to solving a problem is admitting that you actually have a problem.

As the Winnipeg Jets returned to practice on Tuesday, head coach Rick Bowness — who made a return of his own after missing eight of the first nine games due to COVID-19 — made it abundantly clear that the status quo wasn’t going to cut it.

Even after the Jets finished the week with a 3-0-1 record, Bowness wasn’t happy with what he saw (from afar). It was part of his message to the team as they get set to open a three-game homestand on Thursday against the Montreal Canadiens.

Bowness wasn’t trying to be a downer, and he didn’t discount the team’s ability to put points in the piggy bank when they clearly haven’t been at their best since a convincing win over the St. Louis Blues. But, he felt it was important to address the fact there is a considerable amount of work to be done.

“You have to make them aware of how we’re playing and then they have to understand how we’re playing and they have to buy-in to how we’re playing. And they get it. They’re not happy with the way they’re playing,” Bowness told reporters on Tuesday. “They’re not sitting there saying, ‘Wow, we’re 5-3-1, this is great.’ No one’s in that room saying that. They know we have to be a lot better. They’re taking accountability for that. We said early it’s their room, take advantage of it. So we had a good discussion today. But now we have to back it up. We’re not even close to playing the way we want to play. Not even close.

“Good teams find ways to win. We found ways to win. In saying that, man, do we have to play a whole lot better? Absolutely. The effort is inconsistent. The compete is inconsistent. And the puck management is a huge issue right now. So, we’ll deal with those issues.”

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Here’s the thing.

Jets defenceman Brenden Dillon was already well down that road in his postgame comments on Sunday after a 2-1 overtime loss to the Vegas Golden Knights.

The players recognized the issues, and now it’s time to drill down on cleaning those things up.

Fellow blue-liner Nate Schmidt shared similar thoughts on Tuesday afternoon.

“We as a group have to be much, much better,” Schmidt told reporters. “You’re standing here, smiling on a day where you get five of six points, but it easily could have been one out of six. That’s the understanding of the mirror, the understanding of where you’re at as a team and where your game is.”

Jets left winger Kyle Connor took it a step further.

“We’re all aware of it. I think we were lucky to get away with some of the points that we did on this trip,” said Connor. “You know, a lot of it stems from our starts. I think we need to improve a lot in our starts, we’re just coming out sluggish. And I really don’t think we’ve played a great game this year, maybe against St. Louis is our one full game where we played a full 60. But just kind of inconsistent everywhere.

“Glass half-full. It’s the way you’ve got to look at it, but also we’ve got to realize that we can’t sustain it with the way we’ve been playing right now. And we know that we have so much more to give in our standard and our expectation for us, so that is exciting.”

There’s an old coaching saying that you don’t critique wins, but the willingness to ask for more is a welcome change.

The thought being that if things don’t change — and quickly — those results will soon evaporate and the Jets will be left searching for answers.

Instead, the plan is to address the shortcomings, with the idea that those results will have a much better chance of staying consistent if a few critical areas of the game are improved.

With that in mind, here are some things that stood out during October, when the Jets went 5-3-1.

Vezina-buyck reporting for duty

Any discussion about the Jets early-season success must start with the impeccable play of Connor Hellebuyck.

Going into the season, Hellebuyck looked sharp and was motivated to return to the conversation of being one of the best goalies in the NHL.

Starting seven of the first nine games, Hellebuyck has looked like a man on a mission and his raw numbers (2.41 goals-against average and .931 save percentage) are as impressive as the underlying numbers (7.4 goals saved above expected, according to Money Puck).

Hellebuyck has been the Jets’ best player by a considerable margin by making saves that range from routine to spectacular. While that will need to continue, the group will also be working to help lighten his workload in terms of the scoring chances that have been allowed to this point.

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The D are coming, but the goals are still a work in progress

Though the sample size remains small, there are signs that the Jets are activating the defence corps with more regularity this season, with varying levels of success.

Through nine games, the Jets have four goals from the blue line, three from Neal Pionk (including an overtime winner against the Colorado Avalanche) and one from Schmidt.

Bowness said he was hoping to see the team’s defence group go from 23 goals last season to somewhere in the range of 40 this year after implementing a more aggressive system.

Much like work being done with regard to the defensive structure, it was always going to take time for the offence to come.

However, defenceman Josh Morrissey is leading the Jets in points with eight assists, so it’s not like the offensive contributions haven’t been there.

By the time the calendar flips to December, we should have a better idea of whether or not the Jets are tracking toward that goal of seeing D-men light the lamp with greater frequency.

Those numbers could rise quickly if the team can find a way to get their struggling power play going.

With just four goals in 30 opportunities, the Jets sit 26th with the man-advantage, making that an area that needs improvement as well.

Perfetti making his mark

Rookie winger Cole Perfetti is not only working hard to establish himself as an NHL regular, but doing so by earning top-six ice time and chipping in on the second power-play unit.

Perfetti showed plenty of flashes last season, but the offence he helped create for himself and his linemates didn’t always translate into big numbers.

However, Perfetti’s vision and ability to get to the hard areas has helped him get off to a strong offensive start.

With three goals and six points, he’s among the rookie leaders in both goals and assists.

The goal he scored by stripping the puck from Arizona Coyotes D-man Josh Brown and stuffing it past Karel Vejmelka, also included an impressive net drive and sparked the rally in what became a 3-2 overtime victory.

The key for all young players is to establish consistency, and Perfetti has been doing a good job on that front to establish a solid base line as he approaches the 10-game mark of the season.

“He’s very good with the puck, very creative with the puck. We let him play and use those skills,” said Bowness. “It’s like every other young player that comes into the league. You have to learn to play without the puck because there are four other guys on the ice counting on you to do your job without the puck. So, he’s a student of the game, he’s learning on the fly.

“We’re putting him in a big role, top-six forward, without a whole lot of NHL experience. We’re asking a lot of him, but he’s coming around really good and we have a ton of confidence in him. He’ll just keep getting better.”

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Lowry leading the secondary scoring brigade

Jets centre Adam Lowry was the first to admit he needed to get off to a better offensive start after a frustrating first half in 2021-22.

He’s turned those words into actions, scoring twice and adding four assists.

Lowry didn’t score his second goal of the season until Nov. 16 last year, so feeling some early offensive mojo is something he will enjoy.

Although Lowry’s value has always stretched well beyond the stats sheet, getting additional complementary scoring was essential for the Jets, and they’ve been getting it.

There were plenty of questions about whether Morgan Barron would be ready to nail down the job on the Lowry line, and he’s been finding his groove of late, generating a number of scoring chances while scoring once and adding three assists.

Fourth-line fun

Finding ice time for the fourth line has often been a challenge for the Jets, but that hasn’t been the case this season.

Even after Sam Gagner got bumped up to the Lowry line, the trio of David Gustafsson between fellow Swede Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and Finn Saku Maenalanen has been effective by playing a simple game that features a blend of speed, physical play and a ferocious forecheck.

“Those three guys have been fantastic. I don’t know what language they’re speaking between the three of them, but it’s working,” said Dillon. “They have a determination. They’re putting pucks into the other zone and it’s not like they’re big, six-foot-five bruising guys, but they seem to come out of the corners with pucks. It’s a credit to them, they’ve played great, they’ve had great chemistry together. You definitely want to be on the ice with those guys.”

In two of the five Jets’ victories, the fourth unit has produced the game-winning goal, including Jonsson-Fjallby’s redirection against the Los Angeles Kings after Gagner had the game-winning goal in the season opener against the New York Rangers.

It’s the type of start that allows the coaching staff to have faith in using the fourth line in all situations and could lead to a bump in ice time as the season moves along.


Bowness opened his session with reporters on Tuesday by providing an update on his health after missing eight of the first nine games. “I’m fine. One hundred percent? No. Don’t expect to be,” said Bowness. “I’ve learned more about brain fog and fatigue syndrome than I need to know. But other than that, I’m fine and I don’t need to answer any more questions about my health.”

As the homestand opens, the Jets are expected to be without forward Nikolaj Ehlers, who has missed the past seven games with a lower-body issue and is scheduled to see the team doctor on Wednesday, and defenceman Logan Stanley, who is out for at least two weeks with a fractured foot.

Hellebuyck saw so much rubber during his two starts on the road trip that he got a bonus day off the ice on Tuesday. With the schedule spread out a bit as November begins, it will be interesting to see if Hellebuyck starts all three games of this homestand or if backup David Rittich could get the call for his third start of the season.

Former Jets defenceman Johnny Kovacevic has fit in nicely after being claimed off waivers by the Canadiens going into the regular season. Kovacevic has no points in nine games while averaging 17:30 of ice time.

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