Winnipeg Jets aim to ramp up speed, aggressiveness as new NHL season looms
'We want to be a team that every shift, even if we're not scoring, that we're just going at you'
A big smile crossed Nate Schmidt's face as he described the fresh approach and one fun surprise during a practice at the Winnipeg Jets training camp.
New Jets head coach Rick Bowness had players scrimmaging with opposite-handed sticks, while goalies Connor Hellebuyck and David Rittich manned the creases without sticks.
"It was amazing. I loved it," said Schmidt, who's entering his 10th NHL season. "Variety is the spice of life, and you add new things in your life, I think it just makes everyone a little more well-rounded.
"I think when you have new staff come in, it does bring that change of perspective of what you're looking at in the game. Every time you come to the rink and practise knowing there's new drills, new this, new that, it kind of keeps you on your toes. I like that."
The Jets need a little levity considering how last season panned out.
Bowness was hired in July after Winnipeg (39-32-11) missed the playoffs, finishing eight points behind Nashville for the final Western Conference wild-card spot.
The season took a downturn after Paul Maurice resigned as head coach in mid-December and Dave Lowry took over on an interim basis. The campaign ended with players expressing frustration and pointing to problems with accountability.
Bowness is the eighth coach Schmidt, 31, will play under. So far, the veteran defenceman is impressed.
"I think Bones is kind of a no-nonsense coach," Schmidt said, calling Bowness by his nickname. "He loves the game, loves the guys, and I love it.
"I love his type of style because I know that as a player that's what we want. You like knowing that when you come into the rink, you know where you stand."
Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff didn't make any blockbuster moves in the off-season like many other NHL clubs, relying instead on Bowness motivating players to reach their potential. He even described Bowness's hiring as a "seismic change."
The former Dallas Stars head coach is aiming to ramp up Winnipeg's speed, have the defence flash their offensive skills and improve special teams.
The Jets reaped some reward from that blueprint with a 5-0 pre-season victory over the Calgary Flames last Wednesday, including a trio of power-play goals and a penalty kill that stymied Calgary's six chances.
"I think everybody in the league now wants to play fast," centre Pierre-Luc Dubois said. "There's teams that actually do play fast and there's teams that think they are.
"We want to be a team that every shift, even if we're not scoring, that we're just going at you and we're in your face and we're on the forecheck."
Bowness is optimistic players are listening to a new voice and buying into his vision.
"I find the players have been very, very receptive to what we're doing, accepting it and learning it and adjusting a little bit of how we want to play the game — a little faster, a little bit more pressure and things like that," Bowness said before Wednesday's win.
"I think their practice habits have been really good. They've had great attitudes coming into training camp, and now we have to continue to keep it moving forward."
Captain by committee
Bowness made a big change before training camp by removing the captaincy from Blake Wheeler in favour of a cast of captains he'll reveal before the regular season.
Centre Mark Scheifele and defenceman Josh Morrissey were alternatives last season.
Forward Kyle Connor, who won the Lady Byng Trophy as the player who best combines sportsmanship, gentlemanly conduct and ability, led the Jets in scoring last season with 93 points.
He set career highs for goals (47) and assists (46) and only had four penalty minutes in 79 games — the fewest among the NHL's top 100 scorers.
Debuting a new top line
Connor's prowess with the puck will be showcased on a new top line with Scheifele and speedy left-winger Nikolaj Ehlers. Each of them fired in power-play goals in the shutout over the Flames.
"We see the potential that we have, all three of us together, so it's exciting," Connor said. "I think we bring a lot of speed to the table and skill."
Scheifele recorded 29 goals and 70 points in 67 games last season, while Ehlers had 28 goals and 55 points in 62 games.
2nd line of attack
A talented youngster is being given a big opportunity to start the regular season on a new second line.
Cole Perfetti, a 20-year-old left-winger out of Whitby, Ont., has skated with Dubois and Wheeler.
The 10th overall pick in the 2020 NHL draft is pumped after getting a taste of the NHL last season. He contributed a pair of goals and five assists in 18 games before a season-ending shoulder injury.
"Mentally where I'm at, I feel I can contribute on that line," Perfetti said, adding his health is back to normal.
"Obviously, playing with guys like that is pretty special. If that's the line to start the season, it has potential to be really, really good, so I'm super excited about it."
Hellebuyck will get the bulk of net work again, with Rittich ready to fill in. The veteran starter played 66 games last season (29-27-10), one short of his career high, and posted a .910 save percentage.
Rittich, who made 37 saves in the shutout versus Calgary, was signed as a free agent to replace Eric Comrie (Buffalo Sabres).
Rittich, 30, played 17 games for Nashville last season, including 12 starts, and wants to rebound to the all-star form he displayed with the Flames in 2019-20.
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