Being the “interim” of any occupational role is an unenviable position. Professional sports are no exception. For instance, name three memorable “interim” NHL head coaches. Go ahead, I’ll wait. The list is small and undistinguished (much like Nic Petan). The most illustrious is the current head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Mike Sullivan. Seven seasons removed from their last Stanley Cup appearance; the middling Pittsburgh Penguins fired head coach Mike Johnston after a 15–10–3 start to the 2015–16 season. Sullivan finished the year with a 33–16–5 record and became the sixth coach in NHL history to win the Stanley Cup after taking over midseason.
Dave Lowry has now coached 6 games as the Winnipeg Jets ‘interim” head coach. His record is a promising 4-2. If we selectively remove the game against the Capitals (Maurice “resigned” hours before the game), that record is a very respectable 4-1. Are 5 or 6 games a large enough sample size to draw sweeping conclusions? No. Are we going to do it anyway? Absolutely.
By Paul Maurice’s own admission, his message was not resonating with this team. To be honest, his message was flawed and anachronistic, but at least he recognized that he was not getting the ‘most’ of this talented roster (on paper). Sweeping changes are not what the NHL does, but it is useful to highlight what has changed, and not changed, with this recent change in leadership.
What has changed:
• Penalty Kill – the Jets PK is noticeably more aggressive. Not Creatine levels of aggression, but far more rapacious than our laissez-faire approach under Maurice. In the last 5 games, they have surrendered 3 goals on 22 chances (an impressive 86% kill rate). The 3 goals were all tallied by Colorado in a blundering clusterfuck of a loss.
• Net Front Focus – there has been a steady and loud drumbeat coming from all facets of the Jets organization about getting bodies to the net, and removing them from in front of Hellebuyck. The jury is still out on the relative effectiveness of this push, but it has been noticeable (and needed).
• Adam Lowry Plays More – look, you’re not going to get me to say anything bad about Lowry. I coach my daughter’s 7-year-old hockey team and I try to get her as much ice time as possible. Minus the stakes, money, and reputational currency – it’s the exact same. Adam and Dave have to spend Christmas’ together, so I get it.
• Breakout – watching the Jets fumble around in their own end had become as ubiquitous as bad Dennis Beyak plus/minus soliloquies. We seem to be a little less predictable recently (minus Logan Stanley) and we have activated the centerman to provide a release valve for our defenseman.
• Roster Changes – this is more a product of injury and COVID, but sticking with the Morrissey/DeMelo pairing, and keeping the Goat Whisperer and Ehlers together are good moves.
What has stayed the same:
• Bad Positional Breakdowns – the Jets are 6th in ‘giveaways’ this year, and first in plays resulting in the question: “WTF? How did we let that happen?” This might be a personnel problem, as Morrissey, Pionk and Schmidt all suffer from bad positional play at times. Can this be coached aside? Time will tell.
• Inability to Play Fast – the Jets are not Mavericks, as we continually fail to “have the need – the need for speed”. We are barely Goose. Go watch the 7-1 loss to Colorado. Analysis done.
• Power Play – as much as it pains me to say it, Blake Wheeler’s absence really hurts our Power Play. Lowry has tinkered a bit, and Ehlers is still on the second unit (which is a crime), but we won’t know the full potential of our Power Play until Wheeler returns.
So, what is the verdict? Again, a small sample size, but very promising returns thus far (the underlying statistical metrics back this up). Do we have another Mike Sullivan on our hands? Unlikely, but Lowry has done enough in a short time frame to warrant cautious optimism for the salvation of this season. Remember, salvation comes from the Father.