‘No pushback’: Bowness calls out long-standing issues after Jets knocked out of playoffs

The Winnipeg Jets are the first team eliminated from the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs. As Mike Albanese reports, this could have been their core's last kick at the can.

By Ken Wiebe, Sportsnet

It’s time to break up the band.

The lead singer wants a raise.

The drummer wants a bigger profile that is only available in a bigger market.

The lead guitarist isn’t happy and the bassist is ready to record a solo album.

Okay, so these are some of the issues that could cause a band to search for alternatives and not all of the aforementioned reasons apply to the Winnipeg Jets’ Core 4, but one thing is clear, the music doesn’t sound as sweet as it once did and it’s time to make the bold and necessary changes.

A 4-1 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights brought this season to a crashing halt, but the hard work is just beginning for Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, who is about to begin his 13th off-season at the helm, unless governor and co-owner Mark Chipman has a change of heart.

The only way that happens is if Chipman decides that if he’s going to need to overhaul some key members of the orchestra, he might also need a new conductor at the controls.

By the time Jets head coach Rick Bowness made his way to the podium on Thursday, you got the feeling he had been holding in some of his true feelings for quite some time.

Bowness told reporters he wouldn’t last long in this session and he was true to his word, speaking for roughly one minute.

This sounded like a cathartic experience for Bowness, who didn’t hold back in his assessment of the series — or the late-season meltdown.

All of it made its way to the surface and boiled over.

“I’m so disappointed and disgusted right now,” said Bowness. “That’s my thoughts.”

Bowness was just warming up, building to a crescendo.

“No pushback. It’s the same crap we saw in February,” said Bowness. “As soon as we were challenging for first place and teams were coming after us, we had no pushback. This series, we had no pushback. Their better players were so much better than ours, it wasn’t even close.

“We have to push back. There has to be a pushback. There has to be pride. You have to be able to push back when things aren’t going your way. We had no push back. Their better players were so much better than ours tonight. They deserved to win. They were the better team in the regular season, they were the better team in this series.”

These were pointed words from Bowness and they certainly support the theory of going in a new direction with certain members of the core group.

How deep those changes go remains to be seen.

Bowness certainly shared his feelings for all to see.

He’s not in favour of one more season of running it back and hoping for a different outcome.

No more blaming the injuries that are part of the game, especially at this time of the year.

Did the Jets face a major disadvantage not having Nikolaj Ehlers for the first four games of the series and losing Josh Morrissey in Game 3 and Mark Scheifele in Game 4?

Of course, but the Golden Knights battled the injury bug all season long and still found a way to finish first in the Western Conference.

They did it with a relentless attitude, a persistence on both the forecheck and the backcheck and a bunch of depth at each and every position.

Ehlers was back for Game 5, battling through an undisclosed upper-body injury he was not ready to discuss publicly.

He gutted it out, then overcame an early blocked shot on the right foot,

“Obviously, that’s not a spot you want to be right now. We’d much rather still be playing,” said Ehlers. “But anytime you’re out, it sucks. There’s no other word for it.”

What about the future of Bowness?

This season took a physical and emotional toll after he dealt with the effects of Covid in early October.

Bowness brought an improved structure, but the bad habits that have been engrained turned out to be impossible to fully flush and that’s another reason the Jets were the second-best team in this series.

Game 5 against the Golden Knights on Thursday was not just a symptom, it’s more about the disease that has infiltrated the situation.

Continuity can be a great quality, but it has to be accompanied by the results.

Continuity just for a sake of continuity can lead to complacency.

And since the great spring run of 2018, those results quite frankly haven’t been there.

This is merely the latest chapter.

After the first two series victories in franchise history, the Jets have advanced past the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs one time — a four-game sweep of the Edmonton Oilers in 2021, which was promptly followed up with a role reversal against the Montreal Canadiens.

Everybody knows that winning is hard in the NHL and this was another valuable lesson in the quest to build a hockey team that is capable of winning four rounds and raising the hallowed silver chalice.

“It’s not where we envisioned we’d be. It’s not where we want to be,” said Jets centre Adam Lowry, who will be under consideration to be the next captain. “There’s going to be some time to reflect, take some positives from the season and use it going forward. We’re disappointed with the results. You battle so hard to get to the playoffs, you want to go on a run. You want to make a difference, you kind of want to make something magical happen. And we didn’t.

“It kind of happened quick, it hasn’t really sunk in yet. Like I said, we had some belief. We just didn’t achieve what we were hoping to achieve. I think there’s some positives we can take from this season. Use them as a stepping stone to move forward. That’s what we’re going to have to do. Thirty-two teams set out to win the Stanley Cup. Only one is going to win it. There’s going to be some other teams joining us in the disappointment of not making it out of the first round. Changes will be made, whether it’s personnel or systematically or things like that. We’re going to go into next year with some optimism. Hopefully that’s our year.”

Spoken like a true leader.

So where exactly do the Jets go from here?

That’s where the attention will be turned immediately and while some time is going to be required to sort through the exit interviews and get some feedback, there are a few things that are already in plain view.

The urgency of having six players with the potential to become unrestricted free agents in the summer of 2024 now moves to the front burner, with all of goalie Connor Hellebuyck, former captain Blake Wheeler, top two centre’s Mark Scheifele and Pierre-Luc Dubois and defencemen Brenden Dillon and Dylan DeMelo in that category.

Dubois is a pending restricted free agent, while the other five players have one season left on their current deals.

If extensions aren’t possible, the Jets could decide to move the majority of those players for what is expected to be an on-the-fly retool.

There are some folks who prefer the scorched earth model and would like the Jets to take it down to the studs and embrace a rebuild, but that seems unlikely — since the Arizona Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks are already two years into the process and both the St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators took a step backwards this season.

Of course it all depends on what the trade offers are and how the market shakes down that will ultimately determine what the Jets decide to do.

But there’s a very real possibility that all of Scheifele, Dubois, Wheeler and maybe even Hellebuyck have suited up in a Jets uniform for the final time.

Should Dubois be dealt, can the Jets get a similar or better return than what they received from the New York Rangers for Jacob Trouba in the summer of 2019?

It would take much longer to find out if it truly is the Montreal Canadiens or bust for Dubois, who had a strong season but has yet to crack the 30-goal plateau in his career.

The video tape wasn’t kind to Dubois in the series finale, as Dubois was on the ice for three even-strength goals against.

Wheeler played some inspired hockey through the first four games and his effort level is never in question, but after the player and team considered a divorce last summer, it’s far more likely that comes to fruition in 2023 — whether in the form of a trade or some other form of departure.

Hellebuyck made 69 starts this season and by the time the final buzzer sounded in Game 5, it was clear there was very little left in the tank.

The Jets ran Hellebuyck into the ground during the stretch run and they might have missed the playoffs had they not done so.

But that needs to change.

At the very least, the Jets need to invest more and upgrade the backup goalie position.

That’s not to suggest the Jets won’t try to make Hellebuyck the face of the franchise, but given his competitive spirit, it’s hard to imagine him sticking around unless he gets a significant raise on a long-term deal and is convinced that he isn’t going to spend his remaining prime years on a team that isn’t competing for the Stanley Cup.

DeMelo spent most of the season on the top pairing with Morrissey and Dillon, played hard minutes alongside Neal Pionk and has also grown into an important member of the leadership core.

“It just feels like we were starting training camp yesterday, where our goal is the Stanley Cup. Goal was to have a long run and you get some injuries and stuff like that, but I feel like it’s not really like we’re using that as an excuse,” said Dillon. “We still felt we were going to be able to get the job done. And we didn’t.”

So you could see one of or both Dillon and DeMelo sign an extension, but both will have value to contending teams, given the affordable contracts they’re on for one more season.

Cost certainty brings currency in a flat-cap world and even if Dillon and/or DeMelo stick around, the group needs to be augmented — and changed.

The Jets have too many players with a similar style and the same thing applies to the prospects in the pipeline on the blue line.

As for the forward group, one way to start plugging the expected hole down the middle would be to sign Vladislav Namestnikov to a multi-year extension.

He’s been living a nomadic lifestyle these past several seasons and would probably be open to the stability that comes with being with one organization for an extended period of time.

Given his chemistry with Ehlers and the edge he plays with, Namestnikov is at worst a dependable two-way guy who could also help bridge the gap down the middle.

When Cheveldayoff decided that bringing in Namestnikov and Nino Niederreiter (who has one season left at $4 million) was enough and didn’t add or subtract on the back end, he made a declaration that didn’t age overly well.

“So if you look at all the different components as to why you think you should be able to compete for a Stanley Cup, I think we’ve got it,” said Cheveldayoff.

Even when at full health, it’s tough to argue the Jets are a true Stanley Cup contender.

They were a first-place club that sat atop the Western Conference in January, wilted with sub-.500 play for a lengthy stretch before rallying down the stretch.

They ended up being a bubble team, the last club to qualify, snatching the second and final wild-card spot in a turtle derby with the Calgary Flames and Predators.

Could the Jets have found lightning in a bottle and gone on a run?

Sure, but an awful lot of things would have had to go their way.

Instead, the Jets were the first team eliminated from Stanley Cup contention, left to lick their collective wounds and wonder what the future might hold.

Make no mistake there are some solid pieces in the Jets’ organization, but the time has come to change the mix.

And change it significantly.

Shuffling the deck chairs isn’t going to be enough.

That’s never been clearer than it is today.

Don’t just take my word for it, invest the time in watching the way Bowness delivered the mic drop message that might just prove to be the impetus for a major renovation project.

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