WINNIPEG – The scene was set up to be a bit awkward, with seven sets of players, two-by-two, stepping to the podium to take questions on subjects covering the past, present and future.
Welcome to exit interview day, where many words spoken – and others left unsaid – are dissected feverishly, and the search for clues is both a highly intense and often entertaining one.
Given the spiciness of the comments from Winnipeg Jets head coach Rick Bowness after his team was eliminated in five games by the Vegas Golden Knights, one couldn’t help but wonder if his players’ responses on Saturday might fall into the combustible category.
Not surprisingly, there was plenty of pushback by the players, ranging from not being impressed that Bowness aired his grievances with members of the media to wishing he had shared some of that pent-up disappointment a bit sooner, when the team began to sort through a January and February swoon that threatened to derail a once-promising season.
As Bowness himself noted, nobody likes to be criticized, but it comes with the territory, especially when bigger-picture goals aren’t met and certain standards aren’t upheld.
On Saturday, Bowness didn’t fully walk back his comments either, doubling down on his belief the Golden Knights stars outperformed the Jets stars in the series, and by a considerable margin.
However, Bowness did admit his use of the word “disgusting” was probably a bit too aggressive, though he didn’t exactly apologize for his blunt and honest approach.
That’s who he is and will continue to be as he plans to return for the second season on his deal.
“One of my many faults is that I’m too emotional and that I wear my heart on my sleeve,” said Bowness, who was not originally scheduled to speak on Saturday. “That being said, I criticize myself for the choice of words. The message, the clear message, is one that I will never accept that kind of an effort in a game like that. The hidden message, more or less, is that I never want them to be satisfied, ‘OK, we made the playoffs. We got to Round 1.’ I never want them to be satisfied with that.
“So, there’s a kind of a message in there, that yeah, OK, it’s good that we got here, but we’ll never be satisfied just getting in, and getting in eighth spot and getting into the first round. I never want them to be satisfied. And there’s a third message that I won’t certainly share with you guys.”
It was natural to wonder if that third message was related to roster construction.
It wasn’t a surprise he chose to pass, echoing the tone of several players who suggested it was either not part of their responsibilities or beyond their respective pay grade when questions about the winds of change passing through were broached.
“I told you before: I’m going to coach the way I want to coach. I still have to be blunt. I still have to be honest. There’s not going to be any grey area,” said Bowness. “Again, there’s uncomfortable conversations you have and people don’t want to hear those things, and I get it. I understand that. But it’s important to me as the coach to be honest and to be blunt and to be up front, so there is no grey area. That’s important to me.
“They might not like what they hear. That’s fine. I have no problem with that. I don’t expect them to like what they hear. But they’re going to hear it if that’s how I feel. And if I feel that I have to share my feelings and get everything on the table, they’re going to hear it.”
The seemingly unshakeable belief in this core was prevalent with many members of that core, along with additions who have joined the mix in recent years.
Whether or not Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff clarifies that won’t really be known until he speaks to reporters on Sunday afternoon, but with history as a guide, his year-end availability will leave plenty of room for interpretation as it pertains to the future or vision of the hockey club.
The cold, hard truth is that a good chunk of the decisions Cheveldayoff will need to make this summer could be at least partly out of his control, depending on what he hears from either the players or the agents of those players who are under contracts set to expire in the summer of 2024.
Several of those pending unrestricted free agents kept their cards close to the vest, citing the recent exit and/or injuries that knocked them out of the Stanley Cup playoffs as higher priorities at the moment.
Mark Scheifele clearly got the memo to not deliver a sequel from his post-exit interview from 2022, when he openly questioned his future and wondered what direction the organization might be taking.
That was not the case this time around.
“I don’t know. Right now, it’s still too fresh,” said Scheifele. “We just lost the other day. I got hurt a couple days ago, still reeling from that. Right now, it’s too hard to go over all that. I definitely … you take these next few days, these next few weeks, to really think about all that. Once I feel like I’m in a better place of mind, then I feel like I could answer that question.”
One question Scheifele was able to answer was related to possibly being able to spend his entire career with one organization and retire as a member of the Jets.
“Yeah. My favourite player is Stevie Y,” said Scheifele, referring to Steve Yzerman, the Hall of Famer who is now the GM of the Detroit Red Wings. “He played his entire career with the Red Wings and, obviously, I think that’s an accomplishment to play for one team. Obviously, that’s a thing that you have to pride yourself on.
“At the end of the day, there are two sides to this whole thing. Like I said before, a lot of it isn’t up to me.”
Pierre-Luc Dubois couldn’t help but laugh at the rumour mill that has continued to swirl over the course of the season.
“You’re right, there’s a lot of fake things out there, a lot of people saying they heard this or they heard that. At the end of the day, I haven’t said anything or done anything. It’s just speculation. I haven’t made a decision,” said Dubois, noting the conversations between his agent and the Jets would be happening soon. “We just lost, the season just ended two days ago. People speculated all year when nothing new was coming up, nothing new was happening. I can’t control that. Like I said, I haven’t put much thought into anything yet.”
Dubois spoke about the positive steps taken by the Jets this season and left the door open to sticking around when asked about whether signing a longer-term deal was important to him on his next contract.
“Yeah, I mean, you look at the NHL and there’s a bunch of guys who sign short-term deals,” said Dubois. “Sure, a long-term deal would be great, to be able to look into the future a bit but, yeah, I’ve done my entry-level with three, then two and then a one, so it can’t go down, it can only go up. It would be great to get a long-term deal, but we’ll see what happens.”
If you looked or listened hard enough, there appeared to be a few hints dropped by Blake Wheeler, who is the longest serving member of the team.
The 36-year-old right-winger had a lengthy pregnant pause and then got a bit emotional while answering a question about his legacy, prefaced by, should circumstances change, has he played his final game with the Jets.
“I gave it everything I’ve had. I hope that that’s good enough, you know what I mean,” said Wheeler. “There wasn’t a day I took off, so I guess that’s the best you can do.”
Wheeler was asked to reflect on the fact the Jets have won only one playoff series since he signed his five-year extension after the run to the Western Conference final in the spring of 2018.
“If 2018 didn’t happen, I wouldn’t have re-signed here. The only reason I did is, I believed we had a chance to win,” said Wheeler. “I thought 2018, (when) we got to the final four, I thought we were the best team. It was an opportunity we let slip. I’ve dedicated my career to this place because I believed that we had the pieces to win. So from that standpoint, yeah, it’s disappointing to know that that didn’t come to fruition.”
There was also an air of finality with some of the answers given by Connor Hellebuyck, who was the first of several players to shoot down the idea of wanting to be part of a potential rebuild.
Hellebuyck didn’t necessarily sound like someone with one foot out the door, but he made it abundantly clear that the idea of signing a long-term extension if the team wasn’t going to be a contender had zero appeal.
“I’m not interested in a rebuild. I’m just looking to compete every year,” said Hellebuyck. “This year was so fun, and then getting into the playoffs, it’s just a different style of game. You only get so many of those, and going through five games of them – I enjoyed myself more in five games than I did all year.
“And I know from previous experiences every round gets more intense and more fun. It’s like a high you’ve got to chase. You can’t replicate that anywhere else, other than playoffs in the NHL. So, that’s all I’m really looking forward to, is trying to get myself back in those playoffs and (have) a chance.”
When the subject of his future was raised, Hellebuyck started his answer on the cautious side, then left the door open for a potential departure – whether it was intentional or not.
“That’s hard to answer,” said Hellebuyck. “Because that’s a lot to think about, and it’s only been two days. We’re only two days removed. Yeah, my main goal is to win a Stanley Cup, and I’m starting to run out of time and can feel it. You know, (Wheeler) talks about this all the time. It just flashes by. And I’m starting to understand.
“You do need to be in the hunt every single year. You’ve got to make the most of your years. But I’m going to make the most of whatever my situation is, and give my all and give everything I can in the spot or the team that I have.”
Jets defenceman Brenden Dillon is another one of the seven potential pending UFAs in 2024 (Dylan DeMelo and Nino Niederreiter are the others) and he’s been hardened by the business side of the game, having been traded in each of his previous three stops.
“Early on in people’s careers, you think you’re going to play in the same place for 15 years and have your forever home and life goes on,” said Dillon. “But the reality of it is we’re hockey players and we can be moved at any time. I have another year on my contract. I’m looking forward to coming back in training camp.
“This is where I am. At the same time, I think our group got along so well, we see the potential that we have as a group, too. Injuries happen, of course, and not to talk about what just happened in the playoffs. But I did feel confident that we could have won that series. Could have gone further, you look at the Western Conference that we talked about a lot this year. But we have a lot of guys in my situation, too, so as I’ve kind of said, it’s not my decision on things.”
Saturday’s sessions provided limited clarity about the future, but also did nothing to quell any of the anticipation over what direction the Jets will be taking this offseason.