WINNIPEG — If an NHL team’s success begins from the net out, the smile on the face of Winnipeg Jets head coach Rick Bowness reinforced his confidence in the team’s goaltenders.
Connor Hellebuyck is the undisputed starter as the three-time Vezina Trophy finalist (and 2020 winner) heads into the final year of his contract.
He’ll be backed up by Laurent Brossoit, a free agent who signed a one-year deal to return to the Jets (2018-21) after winning the Stanley Cup with the Vegas Golden Knights last season.
Winnipeg also picked up Collin Delia in free agency. He played 20 games with the Vancouver Canucks last season.
“It feels real comfortable,” Bowness said with a chuckle when asked last week how comfortable he is with his goaltending stable. “I like all three of our goalies.
“When you can throw out Helle and you get LB right behind him, for a coach that’s really good. That’s a really good option. And Collin, the games he’s played here, he’s been outstanding so we’re very, very comfortable where we are with our goaltending.”
Hellebuyck played 64 games last season (37-25-2) and posted a 2.49 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. He answered questions about his contract situation at the start of training camp.
“I’m going to be patient, so we’ll see how everything unfolds in the upcoming future,” said Hellebuyck, a Vezina finalist last season. “But I’m here, I’m a Jet and I’m just going to try to win a Cup with this team.”
Brossoit started the first eight playoff games with Vegas last season, but was injured in Game 3 of the second round against the Edmonton Oilers.
The experienced tandem will be the linchpin for the defence-heavy identity Bowness is trying to craft in his second season behind the bench.
“We’re a team that’s going to create offence from really good team defence, which means pressure them all over the ice,” Bowness said.
“When we’re going and we’re skating, that’s what we look like. We’re pressuring the opposition, we’re creating turnovers and we’re going on the attack in a hurry. Or they’re coming into our zone and we’re very aggressive, we’re ending plays and we’re getting breakouts when we get going.”
New Jets captain Adam Lowry likes the depth of the team, which plays its season-opener Oct. 11 in Calgary against the Flames.
“We’re going to try and utilize all four lines, all three (defence) pairings,” the gritty third-line centre said. “We’ve got such a great tandem in net, so at any of the positions there’s so many guys that are interchangeable.
“I think we want to be relentless. We want to be a team that you have to work for your ice.”
The Jets sat atop the Western Conference in mid-January last season but faltered and only grabbed the second wild-card spot in Game 81 after finishing 46-33-3. The Golden Knights bounced them out of the first round of the playoffs in five games.
The club has changes to its forward group after it bought out the final year of former captain Blake Wheeler’s contract. He then signed with the New York Rangers.
Second-line centre Pierre-Luc Dubois was traded to the Los Angeles Kings for forwards Gabriel Vilardi, Alex Iafallo and Rasmus Kupari.
Vilardi has been slotted on the top line with left-winger Kyle Connor and centre Mark Scheifele, who’s also on an expiring contract.
“Every time they practise together they look really good,” Bowness said of the trio. “I love how they hang on to the puck and they find the seams. They’re reading off each other very well.
“Gabe’s a very smart player. He’s everything we heard about him. I think he’s ready to take off and have a big year, so he’s been a real good fit for that line.”
Vilardi had 23 goals and 41 points in 63 games with the Kings last season. Scheifele led the Jets in goals in 2022-23 with a career-high 42, while Connor netted 31 and topped the team with 80 points in 82 games.
ENCORE, AND MORE
All-star defenceman Josh Morrissey is coming off a career-high season after setting a franchise record for most points by a defenceman with 76 points in 78 games (16 goals and 60 assists). He also finished second in scoring among NHL defencemen.
“It’s interesting because everyone will say it’s a career year,” Morrissey said. “Up to this point it was, right? But for me, I want to make it not the best year of my career. I want to try to have a better year, a better year the year after and stuff like that.”
THIRD TIME A CHARM?
Cole Perfetti is getting the opportunity to fill the second-line centre spot vacated by Dubois.
The 21-year-old Whitby, Ont., product was the 10th pick in the 2020 draft and suffered season-ending injuries in his first two years with Winnipeg.
He has veteran winger Nino Niederreiter mentoring him and Nikolaj Ehlers or Iafallo could take the other side. Ehlers missed all six pre-season games because of an injury that caused neck spasms.
The Jets have five key, returning veterans who could become unrestricted free agents next summer, which might be viewed as a good thing for the team.
Playing for a new contract may bring out the best in Hellebuyck, Scheifele, Niederreiter and defencemen Dylan DeMelo and Brenden Dillon.
Niederreiter, 31, said he wants to re-sign with Winnipeg, but knows he’s not a priority right now so he’ll do his best to impress the Jets — and other clubs.
“As an expiring-contract deal, you got to play each and every single night,” he said. “There is a showcase for yourself, also to who knows? Maybe the team you’re playing against is your next team you play for? It’s something you don’t know.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 8, 2023.
Judy Owen, The Canadian Press