WINNIPEG – Still sporting a cut forehead from a stray puck, Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice sounded like a man planning for the future a day after his team was eliminated from the 2014 playoff race.
“I feel better than I did yesterday,” he said as he laughed off the puck rash suffered during Winnipeg’s 4-2 loss to Pittsburgh on Thursday.
“At one point I saw five Sidney Crosbys on the ice. It would be great if I was (Penguins coach) Dan Bylsma but not so much if you’re on the other bench.”
Maurice is only 47 but he has more than 1,000 NHL games under his belt with the Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs.
He took over the Jets from Claude Noel in January on an end-of-season deal. But he has clicked with players, fans and Jets management and there is a lot of pressure to try and persuade him to stick around.
He certainly didn’t sound opposed to the idea Friday.
“You want a chance to get in on that ground floor and have a little experience when you do that so it’s not a matter of just grinding them into the ice next year to make your point that you’re a tough coach,” he said.
“But developing relationships with these players at a young age, where you can have an impact and a bit of a mentorship on them—that’s exciting, to be able to build something.”
It’s been seven seasons since the Winnipeg Jets/Atlanta Thrashers made their one and only playoff appearance.
In their three seasons in their new home they’ve had stretches that made it seem the playoffs were possible, but came up short.
Players were predictably down Friday as they prepared to fly to Toronto to meet the Maple Leafs, although making the playoff round was a longshot at best.
“I’m sure they’re disappointed,” captain Andrew Ladd said of fans who fill the sold-out MTS Centre every night.
“But we’re just as disappointed if not more. It’s what we do as a livelihood and it hurt us, as I’m sure it hurts them. We’ll keep continuing to try to and get this thing figured out and be in the playoffs next year.”
The Jets had pretty much been given up for lost before Maurice took over in January from Noel. Most players agreed he made a difference.
“I think the team is growing and took steps ahead,” said veteran centre Olli Jokinen, whose own game improved significantly over last season. He has 17 goals and 41 points with four games left, good enough for fifth on the team’s scoring list.
“Especially when Paul came I would say we’ve been buying into his system more. The commitment’s been there.”
Maurice also agreed the players have been listening to what he’s been saying.
“There is no doubt there was a willingness there to be aware of the situation that they’re in, to deal with all the details . . You felt it on the bench, they got better at it you know, being aware of who was on the ice against them, what was going on in the game, the momentum shifts.”
Whether all the pieces are in place for success is another issue. The Jets currently sit 24th in the league with a record of 34-34-10. Last season they finished 18th and faded in the stretch after looking like a good bet for the playoffs. In 2011-12, their first season in Winnipeg, they finished 22nd.
“Personnel change is inevitable on every team,” said Maurice, although he didn’t say it was a must for the Jets to succeed.
He noted that the Jets have worked to build through the draft rather than by trades and it has brought the Jets outstanding young rookies Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba.
“Youth is a fact, it’s not a limiting factor,” Maurice said. “We’re a young team. We got beat up by injuries. Those are just facts. I still think that we’re capable of playing a better brand of hockey with every single person that is in that room. So if those are the faces that we have next year I have a higher expectation of our result.”
He also sets a practical limit to what can be accomplished in a short period of time.
“I feel our next step is into that middle of the pack. That’s where we want to drive our team to and we want to get there as fast as we can.”