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ANALYSIS: Competition becoming more than just a buzzword for Jets

Click to play video: 'RAW: Winnipeg Jets Dave Lowry Interview – Jan. 20' RAW: Winnipeg Jets Dave Lowry Interview – Jan. 20
Winnipeg Jets head coach Dave Lowry talks about their 5-2 loss to the Nashville Predators on Thursday – Jan 21, 2022

On the day he was hired, Dave Lowry called himself a direct communicator.

This wasn’t a thinly veiled message to his players through the media, though — that’s not Lowry’s style.

According to the folks who know him best, Lowry is a no B.S. kind of guy and he’s not into playing head games.

Since Lowry took over as Winnipeg Jets interim head coach from Paul Maurice on Dec. 17, 2021, creating a competitive environment has been one of his top priorities and he hasn’t been afraid to discuss that publicly.

“There is a reason why the taxi guys are skating with our group. I want our guys to know that there are extra bodies here,” Lowry said earlier this week.

“It’s pretty clear that if you deserve to play, you’re going to play.”

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To say he’s putting Jets players on notice would be an exaggeration, but this is more than just window dressing or a cursory comment that goes hand in hand with the idea that with a new coach comes a clean slate.

If you’ve been used primarily in a role a bit further down the lineup, that opportunity to potentially be viewed in a different light when it comes to an enhanced role is something certain players relish when a situation like this one presents itself.

And if you’re already an established player, perhaps the chance to jump onto the power play or see an increase in minutes is also welcome.

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“Yeah, I think so,” Jets forward Andrew Copp said when asked about the competitive environment.

“He’s not afraid to play guys that amount of minutes, I mean, especially with special teams. And then he’s not afraid to move a guy around or move lines around to get guys ice.

“As a player, that’s kind of what you want. You want a coach that, when you’re going, you want to be played and if you’re not going, you kind of got to kick it into gear to prove that you can get going.

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“That’s all you really want from a player’s perspective, a coach that’s willing to play the guys that are playing well and not play the guys that aren’t playing well.”

Considering this is his first opportunity to run an NHL bench and he’s been given the backing to do the job until the end of this season, Lowry fully understands that how he handles this situation could dictate whether he’s able to continue in the position beyond this season and ultimately have that interim label removed.

That’s why telling players where he stands — and showing them through his allotment of ice time — is such an integral part of the equation.

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Winnipeg Jets centre Cole Perfetti, right, celebrates his goal with teammate Pierre-Luc Dubois in the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Washington Capitals, Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky).

A skeptic might suggest that injuries and COVID-19 cases had a hand in creating opportunity, but not all of these opportunities were created out of necessity and Lowry is clearly backing up his words with actions.

Whether that’s Cole Perfetti receiving a promotion to play on the top line with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Kyle Connor, Dylan Samberg jumping up onto the second pairing with Neal Pionk in his NHL debut or Austin Poganski and Kristian Reichel being given the responsibility of playing on the checking line with Adam Lowry at various times recently, there have already been numerous examples of the new boss practising what he’s been preaching.

What that can do is two-fold: some of the incumbents realize that there is internal competition and those on the periphery of the roster or down on the farm recognize there is room to shake up the previous perception of the depth chart.

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“The biggest thing for the guys that are playing with the Moose is that they know there is opportunity,” said Lowry.

“You can come into a training camp and you can start a year and it’s usually the same speech. Things have changed now, where contracts, salary cap, everything factors in.

“You can’t usually go into a room and say, ‘We’re wide open for opportunity here,’ because a lot of times that’s not true. But what these guys see is that when guys are coming up from the Moose, they are getting an opportunity and they are getting minutes to play.”

That battle for playing is ongoing and Lowry has already shown he’s not afraid to lean on the guys that he feels are playing the best hockey on that particular night.

On Tuesday, Kyle Connor had 26:45 of ice time and Copp had 25:19.

Mark Scheifele isn’t the only centre on the roster eclipsing 20 minutes either, as Dubois has surpassed the number in each of the past two games.

If you’re going on a particular night, prepare to have your number called frequently.

With the pending return of Jets captain Blake Wheeler, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is likely going to need to pull off some additional salary-cap gymnastics to make the numbers work once again — whether that’s going back to a 21-man roster or potentially subjecting a veteran to waivers in order to clear some space.

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The Winnipeg Jets’ Kyle Connor, centre, celebrates his goal against the Calgary Flames with Mark Scheifele, left, and Brenden Dillon during third-period NHL hockey action in Calgary, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry Mac Dougal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry Mac Dougal

With defenceman Brenden Dillon also in line to return to the Jets lineup this weekend against either the Boston Bruins or Pittsburgh Penguins, Lowry is going to be tasked with another one of those tough decisions he’s discussed previously.

Does he simply pull Samberg out of the lineup or does he consider giving Logan Stanley an afternoon off?

Samberg played nearly four minutes more than Stanley on Thursday against the Nashville Predators — though you can’t ignore the fact that Stanley was in the box for more than seven minutes after his fighting major and roughing minor in coming to the defence of defence partner Nate Schmidt after he was hit from behind by Tanner Jeannot.

Another option for Lowry could be to insert Ville Heinola on the third pairing with Schmidt and see if his puck-moving ability and offensive instincts could provide a spark for a team that’s looking for some secondary scoring.

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Lowry’s goal isn’t to have guys looking over their shoulder or playing tentatively, but the concept of creating a competitive environment is to bring out the best in both the individuals and the group as a whole.

When you consider the sprint to the finish line that is going to be required in order for the Jets to qualify for the playoffs, leaning on a small number of players simply isn’t going to cut it.

The Jets are going to require contributions from throughout the lineup — and also from those depth players from the Manitoba Moose who are going to be asked to answer the call.

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Weekly Jets recap w/John Shannon: January 20 – Jan 20, 2022

Ken Wiebe covers the Winnipeg Jets for Sportsnet.ca and is a regular contributor to CJOB.

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