Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice spent the better part of 40 minutes Friday morning answering questions via Zoom call from the media about the season just past, and the potential for the one that immediately lies ahead.
And the message was tilted far more towards the positive end of things, rather than the negative just a few days after his team was swept in four straight games in the NHL Scotia North Division Final by the Montreal Canadiens Monday night at the Bell Center.
Maurice feels very strongly about the makeup of the team, and the way it handled itself during the pandemic shortened season. Especially the core group led by the likes of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Connor Hellebuyck, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Adam Lowry and Josh Morrissey.
“We got a good, strong coming of age core. There’s still some work to do for sure,” added Maurice. “I think this is the first group of guys that we’ve had, that we’re kind of completely committed to Winnipeg, to the Jets. That’s like an important step to go.”
But it’s pretty clear by the way Winnipeg was dominated in almost every area by Montreal, and by the continued reliance on their star goalie, this will not be a summer to sit back and wait for the process to unfold organically. And Maurice sees the progress made this year by advancing to the second round of the playoffs as another important step.
“You get to the eight and and that’s where we are now with the group. And a lot of really good things had to happen for us to get there. The next stage is, I guess, feeling like you would be if you were Colorado or you’re one of those teams that the media picks. And the general idea is, OK, these guys are in their prime now,” explained Maurice. “I don’t think we were quite there this year. I don’t think that was the sense going in. But you’re going to get a little stronger in all areas. You’ll get a little more mature in all areas. And then you start, I guess, being thought of as one of those teams. I think we are pretty darn close to that. But you also see how incredibly challenging it is with the teams that got beat this round. It’s a grind, it’s tough. But I think we’re moving maybe closer to it now than we have been at any time.”
Until the Jets address their blueline, there will very likely be a question mark in the minds of many people as to whether Winnipeg really is on the cusp of legitimate Stanley Cup contender ship. Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk simply can’t do it by themselves. One of veteran Dylan DeMelo, or promising rookie Logan Stanley COULD be lost to Seattle in the expansion draft. So that leaves some gaping holes to fill with Tucker Poolman, Derek Forbort, and Jordie Benn all headed for unrestricted free agency.
“We’re looking for that improvement on our back end for sure, but we all know that this isn’t sneaking up on us and we know our goaltender can stop a whole lot of pucks. We’ve got to give him a chance to be the difference in the game.”
As impressive futures as Stanley, Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg would appear to have – Maurice just can’t see all three young defensemen being force fed into the starting lineup at the same time. “I think all of these guys will play, but I can’t put three left handed defenseman in their best position to succeed at the same time,” said the veteran bench boss who will be going into his eighth full season in 2021-22 after taking over from Claude Noel in mid-January of 2014.
“So what we have is a pool now of good players. It’s just as important for us to find the right player for Ville to play with. But there’s other players, too. Priority One might be making sure that we have the right guy for Josh Morrissey to play with to maximize what he can do.”
One of the major points of contention among detractors of Maurice is that he has not done a good enough job of developing Winnipeg’s current cast of prospects. So when the question came up about why he’d continue to use a trio of veterans like Mathieu Perreault, Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis on the fourth line – as opposed to giving that ice time to Jansen Harkins, Kristian Vesalainen, and David Gustafsson – the Jets bench boss had an answer.
“All three of those guys have a ways to go before I put in either of them to kill penalties against the Edmonton Oilers power play, which was number one in the league. Or take Matty Perreault’s job on the power play. They’re not even close to that,” said Maurice. “One or two of them may get a chance to do that over time. I do think Vesalainen may have shown us that he could actually, at some point come into our line-up in a three hole with Lowry. That’s a possibility because of his his acumen on the ice. But none of those young players are close in terms of effectiveness in the game than those three veteran players. They might get there. And that’s what the American League is going to do. We might be able to say, OK, we’ve got the two right guys that we’re going to bring in to play with one of these young guys and they’ll take off or they’ll get a little better and you’ll put your younger guys in. But our fourth line this year truly had a big impact on all of the things that I am positive about our group. I don’t know that they’re coming back. That’ll all be up to us. They’re all UFA’s, I get that. But having the three kids on your fourth line playing eight minutes a night makes no sense to me. Unless you can take one of them and play them up in the top six at some point.”
And of course, the question came up about Maurice and whether his shelf life has expired after seven plus seasons at the helm of the Jets. “I understand in my job you’re always going to have your critics. And that’s a beautiful part of pro sports, the passion of the game. But I’m really proud of the job I did and the staff did this year under incredibly trying circumstances,” said Maurice.
“We did a good job this year, our team played hard, fought through adversity, but a bigger thing that maybe I can’t sell, but I’ll explain to you that’s really important, the culture in our room right now is as good as it’s been since I’ve been here. And I think that’s priority one for your for your job as a coach. I think we have more players invested in Winnipeg now than we ever had. We always to have a guys that that love playing in Winnipeg, love playing for the Jets. It’s small things, Mark Scheifele buying a house. It’s all of those kind of connections that we need to have in Winnipeg because maybe we’re not like some other major markets that can draw players or not have us on their no trade list. All those things that we compete with. And that I say without qualification, this is as close a group as we’ve ever had. And the culture of our room right now is as strong as it’s ever been. And the coaches are, in fact, a part of that.”
Maurice had this message for anyone who feels, or may have felt, the disappointing ending at the hands of Montreal should categorize this season as a failure. “We’re a pretty good team. We got some places that we got to get better at. Making the playoffs, winning the first round can not possibly be viewed as a negative in Winnipeg. Because then your standard is so skewed, you’re never coming to the rink happy.”