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Rick Bowness on the long-term vision in Winnipeg, Nikolaj Ehlers, and outside criticism
The Winnipeg Jets open their postseason tonight against the Vegas Golden Knights.
Rick Bowness came to Winnipeg with a long-term vision in mind.
After mutually parting ways with the Dallas Stars, he was hired by the Jets to change the culture, bring more accountability and re-set a franchise that felt it was teetering on the edge of falling into anonymity on and off the ice.
Before the season started he stripped Blake Wheeler of the captaincy, a move Bowness said was designed around taking the burden off Wheeler and giving opportunity to others, and then late in this season, as the Jets nearly tumbled out of the playoffs, he was critical of his top players, calling them out for inconsistencies.
So as the Jets prep for Game 1 of their playoff series with the Vegas Golden Knights, which starts tonight, how does Bowness think things have gone in Year 1 in Winnipeg?
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“There’s still work to be done with the team with the team itself both on and off the ice,” Bowness told me. “But let’s put it this way, we are in a lot better shape than we were in September and when the season ended last year. We had to come in, we had to make a lot of changes, and had to get the team back in the playoffs. But in saying that, I still see there is a lot to be done on and off the ice. But we did what we were brought in to do, that being said, and I can’t emphasize enough, there is still a lot of work to do.”
Long-term goals, at this time of year, coincide with short-term goals. The Jets main focus today, is to win a playoff series against the Golden Knights, nothing else. But what happens within that series, according to Bowness, will help shape the long-term future of the franchise.
“We are completely dialed in on Vegas, but in the big picture the players will completely dictate to you how the play and whether they are part of the big picture moving forward,” Bowness said. “And how much work has to be done moving forward, we’ll learn an awful lot about our personnel and that will take care of itself and show itself as the playoffs go on.”
One of the over-arching narratives about the Jets this season has been Bowness vs. Nikolaj Ehlers.
Similar to his time in Dallas, where top players were seemingly given less minutes then they should, Ehlers has had his ice time drop this season to 15:39 per game, his lowest usage since the 2018-19 season.
Bowness vs. Ehlers became a narrative, was it fair?
“There’s never been a confrontation, Nik and I get along great,” Bownes said. “He’s been battling injuries all year, so that effects his ice time. But Nik and I talk every day, and when we kill a lot of penalties and he doesn’t get out there because he doesn’t kill penalties, we talk about it … Nik and I have a great relationship, so to say something otherwise is without a doubt made up.”
Bowness reiterated again that he makes sure he and Ehlers talk every day.
“Because he’s battled injuries all year, we have information that no one else doe,” Bowness said. “And that’s the stuff we’re I’m not going to throw him under the bus and say he’s playing with a bad this or that, so I’ll take the lumps that will come with that and protecting him at the same time.”
It’s eerily reminiscent of the conversation I had with Bowness throughout the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs in the Edmonton bubble. He used that same line of thinking about Ben Bishop not playing, “we have information you don’t,” and Bishop’s career turned out to be effectively over already.
“Sometimes we have to bite the bullet and eat one for that,” Bowness said. “That’s something that’s part of what we sign up for, it’s just part of the job.”
When it comes to criticizing players publicly, Bowness said it often becomes a bigger deal than it should. He said anything he’s ever said in the media he’s already said a “hundred times,” in the locker room (to his credit this tracks based off my experience covering Bowness in Dallas).
Frankly, players don’t respond to media criticism in today’s era anyway. Very few players actually read what’s written, even in a hockey-crazed Canadian market, nothing is forcing a player to read SportsNet or listen to a podcast when they could just watch Netflix on their off day.
“That’s why you have to deal with things face-to-face and upfront, if you are trying to go through the media to send a message or something like that, it’ll never actually get delivered,” Bowness said. “There’s no grey area, we deal with it inside the team, we focus on that. I don’t need an (interview) to connect with a player.”