ANALYSIS: Action required, but words from Jets’ players set proper tone for offseason

The steady stream of disappointment is what you would expect from a team that clearly had high hopes and ultimately underachieved.

But as members of the Winnipeg Jets continue to step to the podium to speak their truth about the way this squandered season has gone, there has been a refrain that is both refreshing and right on point.

Rather than lean on tired cliches, player after player has seemingly taken it upon themselves to make it clear that the status quo isn’t good enough when sharing their thoughts about an underwhelming season that is nearing its completion — with Sunday’s finale against the Seattle Kraken right around the corner.

Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry has spoken openly about players showing accountability and he’s encouraged by what he’s heard from them.

“I told you the other day, we’re not going to run and hide from this. We know that we’re going to have to be better. The biggest thing is it has to start within, and it has to start with self-reflection and individuals taking ownership of where we are,” Lowry said.

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“I say disappointment. And every guy is going to have different words. I use disappointment and you use frustration. There’s going to be different adjectives used to describe what went on this year.”

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When you consider how many Jets players are enjoying incredible individual seasons — including Kyle Connor setting the Jets 2.0 single-season record for goals and points — the struggles for the team are even more pronounced.

The players are as confused as many observers who thought the roster should be good enough for the Jets to make the move forward from bubble team to contender.

Instead, the Jets are going to finish sixth in the Central Division and are about to enter an offseason of uncertainty.

“You look at our team, we have a great team,” said Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers.

“We have a lot of skill, we have young guys, we have older guys. We have, on paper, what it takes to be a playoff team. But a lot of teams that aren’t in the playoffs right now have that. It’s a matter of playing the right way, doing all the small things, playing with the right mindset, and being ready for every single game.

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“We did start pretty well, but it’s still an 82-game season. If you play 15 games the right way, that’s not going to be enough for you. We just didn’t play our best. We did a couple of games, but that’s not going to do it for you.”

Winnipeg Jets’ Nikolaj Ehlers (27) celebrates his goal on Los Angeles Kings goaltender Cal Petersen (40) during first period NHL action in Winnipeg, Saturday, April 2, 2022. THE CANADIAN PRESS / John Woods

Given how tough the second half has gone, it’s occasionally easy to forget the Jets opened the campaign with a record of 9-3-3 before things went sideways.

It’s natural to wonder how deep the changes are going to be.

Could there be another foundational trade made like the one that brought in Pierre-Luc Dubois and a draft pick in from the Columbus Blue Jackets for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic?

Or will the Jets’ management team view this as more of a one-off and once again show faith in the core group?

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Ehlers wasn’t ready to deal with any of those hypotheticals when asked if he would consider putting his GM hat on.

“First of all, I don’t have anything to say in all of that. And I don’t think it’s for players to go in and say that to the GM, that nothing needs to get changed or we need to change everything,” said Ehlers, who has committed to playing for Denmark at the upcoming IIHF World Men’s Hockey Championship in Finland.

“Like I said, in the beginning of the season, we came to camp and we felt great about where the roster was at. And now we’re sitting here, not in a playoff spot, where I think we should be with the team that we have.

“So, that’s for (Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff) and whoever is up there to decide whether or not he believes that there’s something in this room. But we, mentally, have a lot to change in the way that we prepare for games and get ready to play NHL hockey games, because this year was just not enough.”

Read more: Connor claims points record, Comrie earns first NHL shutout in 4-0 Jets win over Flyers

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Not living up to the hype is something that clearly bothers this group.

Whether it was Neal Pionk saying the season was embarrassing for both himself and the team or Connor Hellebuyck declaring it a wasted season, you get the sense these players are taking ownership in the poor results and they are determined to ensure they don’t suffer the same fate again in 2022-23.

“We came in here with a belief that we knew we were going to be a playoff team,” Ehlers said.

“It was a matter of having the right mentality, playing the right way, and doing all the small things right. I think when you look back now, in this league you have to be a little more humble than that.

“We didn’t do all those small things right. We didn’t play enough good games, obviously, or else we wouldn’t be sitting here right now. That’s on us, that’s on no one else. It’s on us to play hockey and win games. Yes, we had injuries. Yes, we had guys out with COVID. But every team in this league has that every single year. There are really no excuses for us to be in the situation we’re in right now.”

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RAW: Winnipeg Jets Comrie & Connor Interview – Apr. 27

There are no excuses, but there are reasons.

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Whether that is finding a way to be more committed defensively as a group or making improvements to puck management or delivering significant strides on special teams, the pathway to success is clear, even if the Jets couldn’t find that level of consistency nearly enough this season.

“We would have stretches where we would buy in and we would play really well, and then we’d have times where we wouldn’t. That’s a buy-in factor,” said Jets defenceman Nate Schmidt.

“In October and November, we had that. We had that buy in. We were playing really well. So that buy in, when I say it, had to happen long before that. That’s what I mean.

“You have to have that throughout just more than two weeks, more than three weeks. You can’t lose it for two weeks at a time during an NHL season. That puts you behind the eight-ball.”

Another theme that’s been repeated by players over the past week relates to having many important pieces in place. That would suggest that a complete teardown or rebuild isn’t necessarily required.

Dallas Stars left wing Jamie Benn (14) and Winnipeg Jets defenseman Brenden Dillon (5) fight in the second period of an NHL hockey game Friday, Feb 11, 2022, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Richard W. Rodriguez)

“I think if you were to ask all 23 guys in that room if we’d be in this situation right now, I don’t think there’d be one ‘Yeah, this is where we thought we’d be.’ This isn’t even close to where we thought we’d be,” said Jets defenceman Brenden Dillon.

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“I think for a lot of guys individually, myself as well, it’s a weird time. It’s not fun knowing you’re not really playing for something right now. It’s not fun going through the day-to-day knowing you’re not playing for positioning, home ice.

“Getting to know these guys over the course of the last seven, eight months — we all care, we all want to do our best. I think that’s the thing about a team. We have a bunch of unbelievably talented … I mean our roster, top to bottom, it just looks like we’ve got everything we need. The goaltending, the defence, the scorers, the checkers. To put my finger on one thing why (the results didn’t follow), I don’t know, I wish I could tell you.”

The veteran voices on the club, from Schmidt and Dillon to Paul Stastny and captain Blake Wheeler all had a sense of urgency in their voices when talking about the next step in the process.

Now the actions must match the words.

“I think we’ve dissected it a lot the last month or two, going through everything to try and figure out what’s happened,” said Schmdit, who drives in with Dillon on a daily basis.

“It’s something that we have, ad nauseam, tried to figure out what we can do, what we can do as a group. For me personally. I’ve been doing it, and it’s going to continue after the year is over. I hate to say when you turn 30, but you start thinking about, in this game, when you’re teeing off on the back nine, you realize that you don’t want to waste anything.

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“‘There’s always next year’ works when you’re younger. When you’re older, it’s harder, because you only have so many years. You start to see that there’s a time where there’s a definitive end to this game. So it’s hard to see another year go. It sucks.”

Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet.ca and is a regular contributor to CJOB.

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RAW: Winnipeg Jets Dave Lowry Interview – Apr. 27

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