The Winnipeg Jets are out in Round 1 again: What went wrong and what needs to change

Step by step, the 2023-24 Winnipeg Jets climbed to what felt like the top of a mountain. It took five playoff games for the Colorado Avalanche to show them the difference between base camp and Everest.

Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar outshone Winnipeg’s brightest stars in Colorado’s series win. Valeri Nichushkin, Casey Mittelstadt and Artturi Lehkonen did the same, overwhelming a beleaguered Jets defence with pace, determination and physicality. Alexandar Georgiev finished the series with better numbers than Connor Hellebuyck and Winnipeg largely struggled to get out of its own zone, turning it into a shooting gallery for four out of five games.

“They brought that Stanley Cup-winning class to this series, and we didn’t return it for three or four of those games,” Josh Morrissey said, visibly distraught after Game 5. “We have levels that we need to find this offseason. I hope it stings for all of us into the summer and we use it as motivation.”

Given the heights the Jets hit this year — and the ground the franchise has covered between last year’s five-game loss to Vegas and now — it feels too soon to be talking about summer workouts, offseason pain and the push to be better all over again. But this season’s pain isn’t about whether or not Winnipeg got better in 2023-24; the Jets improved by six wins, 15 points, 12 goals for and 26 goals against.

It’s about the enormous difference between the level Winnipeg found and the one Colorado showed was possible.

“The Avs did a really good job forcing us to try and play their game. We weren’t able to kind of impose our will and impose our style,” Adam Lowry said. “I think with the pieces we added we felt we could play with any team in this league, and with the goaltending we have, so it’s going to be a long summer, a disappointing one. This one’s going to sting for a while.”

These Jets had known failure. They had fallen apart against Vegas, a team full of absentees and ghastly performances. They had also put in the work — digging themselves out of last season’s abyss, climbing the standings on the back of the stingiest defence in the NHL. They’d convinced themselves they were Stanley Cup contenders and showed enough of the hallmarks to enter that conversation with legitimacy.

Thus Colorado’s five-game dismantling does not undue Winnipeg’s progress. It reveals how much further the Jets still need to go.

“We’re way ahead of where we were at this point last year when we lost,” said Jets coach Rick Bowness, who one year ago called out the team’s lack of pushback. “Way ahead. The team made a lot of great strides during the course of the season.”


So what went wrong — and what comes next?

The Jets’ offseason begins early — exactly as Colorado dictated — but without the spectre of star departures. Mark Scheifele’s and Connor Hellebuyck’s seven-year contract extensions begin next season. Morrissey is signed for four more seasons, while Lowry and Kyle Connor have two years left on their current deals. The Jets’ unrestricted free agents include Brenden Dillon, Dylan DeMelo and Laurent Brossoit as well as trade acquisitions Sean Monahan, Tyler Toffoli and Colin Miller. Cole Perfetti and David Gustafsson will need new contracts, too.

Anyone who’s ever moved homes will tell you one of the hardest decisions is what to throw away and what to keep. The same must be true for NHL teams in a state of transition, making this offseason as tricky as any that have come before it. The Jets got better but still fell far short of their goal — they were outmatched, outplayed, outcoached.

In a lot of ways, Bowness’ future is the biggest question. Winnipeg has a club option on his contract this summer and, when asked about it after Game 5, Bowness demurred. “We just lost in the playoffs,” he said. “We’ll figure that out.”

To understand where the Jets will go with the pain of this year’s playoff loss, consider how they got to Game 5 at all.

Remember where this all started: A lack of pushback, an ex-captain on the way out, and PL Dubois in the process of demanding a trade.

General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff made sure the Jets got their way, bringing Gabriel Vilardi, Alex Iafallo and Rasmus Kupari back for Dubois in a pre-draft blockbuster. He bought out Blake Wheeler, clearing the air for Lowry to step forward as captain. The Vilardi trade, plus Cheveldayoff’s brand new playbook — transparency in contract negotiations — brought back two franchise cornerstones in Scheifele and Hellebuyck.

There was an immediate resurgence: Vilardi got hurt but Connor stepped up, briefly leading the NHL in goals. When Connor got hurt, Vilardi formed a new top line with Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers — a line that dramatically outscored its opponents as the Jets pushed up the standings. Perfetti scored 19 points in his first 23 games as top prospects Brad Lambert and Nikita Chibrikov produced similarly in the AHL.

There were spots of concern — Bowness’ apparent disregard for Ehlers’ and Perfetti’s quality — even as the Jets’ position in the standings soared. But Winnipeg kept winning and the buy-in began to snowball: Nino Niederreiter signed a multiyear contract extension, speaking to his love of the organization and the city. The Jets acquired Monahan, whose power-play impact was instantaneous, before adding Toffoli and Miller. Cheveldayoff had made a series of franchise-defining moves that re-established Winnipeg’s competitive window.

Bowness talked openly with his players about their lack of pushback against Vegas. The Jets doubled down on defensive structure, getting even better results in Bowness’ second year. There was midseason talk of the Jack Adams Award, given to the NHL’s top coach. By January, Bowness was an All-Star and Winnipeg led the league in points. After 82 games, they’d produced the single-best defensive and goaltending performances in the NHL. Lowry will receive Selke votes. Morrissey could be a Norris finalist. Hellebuyck has already won the Jennings Trophy and will likely win the Vezina.

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The Jets acquired Sean Monahan (left) and Tyler Toffoli (right) ahead of the trade deadline. (Darcy Finley / NHLI via Getty Images)

Winnipeg sputtered, but only for a moment. The club was better on paper with a higher floor than last season, and it erased a six-game losing streak with eight straight wins. Bowness would wait until Game 5 to dress a 19-goal scorer in Perfetti and the right-handed veteran defenceman they traded for in Miller, but the Jets arrived at the playoffs with home-ice advantage and a torrid stretch of wins. The Jets were full value for the miles put in between last year’s devastation and this year’s peak. Their process was good; their habits had earned them the right to dream big.

“When you talk to guys that have won Cups, a common theme I’ve heard is you don’t always know,” Morrissey told The Athletic before Game 1. “You don’t go into the playoffs, ‘This is the year we’re going to win.’ You don’t always know when it’s going to come. But the more opportunities you give yourself, if you do it the right way and have good teams, you also never know when it might come, too. So why couldn’t it be our year this year?”

We now know the answer. Colorado showed it to us, achieving a level of individual and team performance that made dominance look commonplace. What moments Winnipeg conjured — Josh Manson scoring on himself, Tuesday’s enormous second-period penalty kill, Morrissey’s goal to make it 2-2 in the second, Toffoli tying it 3-3 in the third — the Avalanche had the answers.

MacKinnon laid out the formula for their relentlessness.

“Everyone’s on the same page. A lot of similarities to the year we won,” he said. “I think we just know everyone in that room is gonna give everything they have and that’s the standard, whether you score or don’t. Some of that stuff is out of your control, but you can control your effort and how hard you work and we’ve got everyone on the same page right now battling. Whether we win or lose, we just want to go out swinging, and we had a great series in that sense.”

Winnipeg is a step behind on that front and, if it’s going to win a championship without a MacKinnon or a Rantanen on the roster, it’s going to need to close that gap. MacKinnon isn’t going anywhere. Jack Eichel, Mark Stone, Roope Hintz, Jason Robertson, Connor McDavid … it’s easy to see a talent gap between Winnipeg’s top players and those of the Western Conference elite standing in their way.

But you don’t throw Scheifele out because he’s not MacKinnon, just like you don’t move on from Hellebuyck because he couldn’t steal a series Colorado utterly dominated. You build around them, looking for other advantages up front while trusting that the best goaltender in the world will put up playoff numbers to reflect that. Niederreiter and Namestnikov were great additions because they make Winnipeg harder to play against. They’re not Nichushkin or Lehkonen; Winnipeg’s top-end still favours offence-first players who don’t win as many battles.

During the regular season, Connor fit that description. During the playoffs, it was more apt for Ehlers, who set up Toffoli’s 3-3 goal in Game 5 but was otherwise unable to overcome a lack of speed and chemistry on the Jets’ second line. Meanwhile, Connor was playing some of the best 200-foot hockey of his career — a level of play that would help him outscore his minutes if he maintained it in the regular season.

Colorado isn’t spending any time guessing which of Rantanen, Nichushkin, Lehkonen or MacKinnon are going to show up at both ends of the rink. Winnipeg’s future depends on guessing right — up front and on defence, where DeMelo has been Morrissey’s best partner for years and Dillon’s absence left a gaping hole. Dylan Samberg stepped up in Dillon’s absence, but veteran Neal Pionk — Winnipeg’s No. 3 in minutes — appeared outmatched.

To that end, it’s time to discuss the impacts of Winnipeg’s coaching.

The Jets don’t have a great read on Miller’s ability to round out their defence corps, as they only dressed him for five regular-season games and one more in the playoffs. Ehlers is scheduled to become a 2025 UFA and immediately becomes a trade target; it is difficult to project an extension after so much time on the second line under Bowness and his predecessors alike. Perfetti was among team leaders in goals and primary assists per minute of ice time but was limited to 1:34 in the third period of Game 5. During the regular season, the lack of ice time saw him fall one goal short of a performance bonus that would have paid just over $200k. Teammates noticed and so have rival clubs.

Bowness has had a very positive impact on Winnipeg’s defensive structure. He’s among the most respected coaches in the game, known for carving out tremendous interpersonal relationships. His personnel decisions have also served to undercut his own immediate goals while creating longer-term concerns about the Jets’ ability to retain young players. Lambert, Chibrikov and Rutger McGroarty are getting closer to challenging for NHL minutes. Elias Salomonsson just won an SHL championship at 19 years old while Ville Heinola is still in the AHL.

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Jets head coach Rick Bowness speaks to the media after Tuesday’s Game 5 loss. (James Carey Lauder / USA Today)

Much more pressing: Two of Bowness’ veterans called out for the need for adjustments four games into the series. He countered by discussing individual execution — and he was right — but Winnipeg’s coach was a step behind Colorado, just like his players. The Avs’ series-long advantage was its forecheck taking away outlets from an outmatched Jets defence faster than Winnipeg’s players could cope with it. Game 5 was Winnipeg’s best game of the series partly because the Jets addressed their breakout, relying heavily on instant and aggressive stretch pass outlets — often two at once.

Bowness was asked after Game 5 if he would have done anything differently in the series.

“For sure. We lost. We didn’t win. Hindsight is 20-20 but you do learn,” he said. “‘That worked, that didn’t work, that was a mistake.’ You have to be honest with yourself. We will be very honest with ourselves as a staff, about what we did right and what we did wrong and what we have to do better.”

If Winnipeg isn’t going to dress MacKinnon, McDavid or Eichel, then it’s a team that can’t afford to cut away at its own margin of error. If it’s on the Jets’ players to soak in the sting of their loss, challenging themselves to be better as Morrissey has said, then Winnipeg’s coaching staff has to follow through on Bowness’ commitment to soul searching, too.

For a look back at the standard Winnipeg needs to get to, consider Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar’s view on the difference between where the Avalanche used to be and where they are today.

“Our group, it didn’t happen immediately. We lost a handful of times in the second round and then they just really dialed into the commitment that it takes, and the pursuit of perfection that it takes, in order to try and win. Our team never shortchanges us on our effort. Sometimes we play better than other times. But they’re committed to what we’re doing,” Bednar said after the series. “Ultimately, it comes down to playing your best hockey at the right time. That’s over two-week periods in the playoffs, and you’ve got to do it four times in a row in order to win. Our guys understand that.”

“Their mental toughness has increased every year for us,” Bednar continued. “We’ve got great leadership in there. I used to hate that saying, that you’ve got to lose before you win. But realistically, after we won in 2022, I know that was part of it. Losing the handful of years before when we thought we had a team that could win. They learned a lot of lessons from that. Those are tough lessons to learn when you really have a good team like Winnipeg does. … I just thought our guys did a really nice job (and) I think that’s the best hockey we’ve played for five games in a row all season long. That’s what it takes at this time of the year.”

It’s encouraging that Morrissey and Lowry are challenging themselves and their teammates to sit in the pain, channel it and improve. It’s a step forward, in and of itself, considering last season’s exit interviews about pushback, the players’ frustration with Bowness’ Vegas press conference, and all of the sideshow frustration that came with it. The Jets need that kind of commitment at all levels of the franchise. Colorado showed them the standard in five dominant, relentless games. Even the Avalanche’s practices looked harder.

The Jets took several steps forward this season and deserve credit for them. The Avalanche also buried them in a cold, hard truth: Winnipeg still has a long way to climb.

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