“I want him back.”
Those were the words of Winnipeg Jets captain Andrew Ladd as he went through his final interviews with the media after the 2013-2014 season. He was talking about Paul Maurice, the head coach who joined the team in January.
“I think he’s a great coach and a great mind. He’s really good for this group. Everyone in that room loves to play for him. When you have something like that, and you have a group that’s willing to work and go wherever he takes us, I think you want a guy like that back.”
Maurice left no grey area about what he wanted to do, ending his final press conference with a clear indication: “I want to be coaching the Winnipeg Jets next year.”
General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff went to work on just that. Once the team’s exit interviews with players were completed, Cheveldayoff and Maurice agreed to terms, and after a quick conversation with his family, Maurice signed a four-year contract with the Winnipeg Jets.
“He’s an impressive hockey coach, but he’s a very impressive person as well,” Cheveldayoff said. “He came into this situation as one man. He walked in and made a tremendous impact from the moment he walked in, and we believe we’re just scratching the surface on the impact he can make on this franchise moving forward.”
Maurice maintained throughout the season that having a conversation with his family about moving to Winnipeg was important.
"I had actually made the promise to the family that we were doing this at the kitchen table and I had said this enough times in the media that I couldn't now do this by phone," Maurice said. "I got on a plane yesterday, Kevin and I quickly agreed to what's fair to both sides, that took no time at all. I got home, and that took about three minutes, too, said I wanted to go to Winnipeg and wanted the family to be part of it and they all smiled and said, 'Let's go.'”
The Winnipeg Jets record of 37-35-10 in 2013-2014 season was the exact same as it was after 82 games in 2011-2012, but the change from Claude Noel to Maurice behind the bench was something that stuck with rookie Jacob Trouba.
“This isn’t minor hockey or college anymore. This is real,” the 20-year-old defenceman said. “The whole thing with Claude, I think that kind of opened my eyes a little bit. I realized ‘you’re a grown up now’ and this is real stuff. That’s probably the biggest thing I went through.”
That coaching change came when the Jets were 19-23-5, and in the middle of a five-game losing streak to open the second half of the schedule. An 18-12-5 finish under Maurice left the team seven points shy of a wildcard berth in the Western Conference.
Six out of the eight playoff teams in the West finished with over 100 points, with the wildcard teams, the Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars, ending with 98 and 91 points respectively. Though that may show the level of competition and quality of teams in the conference, it didn’t soothe any of the Jets’ pain.
“We didn’t win enough games,” said captain Andrew Ladd. “It’s usually related to consistency. I thought we found that consistency in the back half of the season, but at that point, you’ve put yourself in a situation where, the games you come out on the wrong end of, but should have won hurt you a lot more.”
Blake Wheeler, who led the Jets in goals (28) and points (69), feels it’s difficult to point out one reason why the team is on the outside of the playoff picture.
“I think there’s areas we need to improve. I’ve said it all year, I think as a hockey team we have enough players to be in the playoffs,” said Wheeler. “I just think there are other areas we fall short a bit. I think we can grow as a group and hopefully learn from the experiences that have been going on the last couple years.”
Coach Maurice says becoming a team that contends year after year is a process that takes time, citing that he felt the Boston Bruins continue to improve even after winning the Stanley Cup in 2011.
“The key is how long can you stay in the right direction. There’s always falling off - injuries, pieces you thought would fit didn’t the way you wanted them to, how long it takes your young players to develop to the level of being men,” Maurice said. “I thought we made some decent strides in the defensive zone, still a long way to go there. But the last week and a half is where we finally got to our offensive zone. We got on the puck better than we had all year. It will take a while.”
Two parts of Maurice’s criteria, injuries and the development of young players, were prevalent in this year’s version of the Winnipeg Jets. The injury bug bit the team repeatedly during the push for the playoffs. With regulars like Grant Clitsome and James Wright already sidelined, Mark Scheifele, Chris Thorburn, Dustin Byfuglien, Zach Bogosian, Keaton Ellerby, and Andrew Ladd would all miss time by season’s end, with Jim Slater and Jacob Trouba adding to the list in the final game of the season. In total, the Jets lost 348 man games to injury, the third most in the National Hockey League.
The injuries were a big hurdle for the team, but the development of Scheifele and Trouba were encouraging signs. Scheifele surged after starting the season with five points in 24 games, to finishing with 29 points in his final 39 games.
“Obviously the start wasn’t exactly what I wanted, but I felt I improved every game,” said Scheifele. “That was my goal. I wanted to get better every game and I wanted to learn all year. A lot of the guys helped me, and the coaches helped me. I thought it was a good year. I just have to want more out of myself next year to help the team and help myself. It’s just a matter of continuing to learn.”
Trouba’s strong rookie campaign saw him finish with 10 goals and 29 points in his 65 games. He was also one of the team leaders in ice time by the end of the season.
“I don’t really think I acted too much like a rookie,” he said. “Just have to stay humble and stay on the path you’re on. Work hard this summer to come back in better shape for next season, bigger and stronger, and ready to play.”
The theme of conditioning came up frequently when the players met with the media one last time before going their separate ways for the off-season. The size and strength of opposing teams in the Western Conference and coach Maurice’s preference of an up-tempo style of play makes fitness a focal point for players this summer.
“A lot of big bodies out there,” Zach Bogosian said of the Western Conference. “That was probably the biggest thing for me. Just seeing the different Ryan Getzlafs and Corey Perry, Kopitar, seeing all those guys that are big but also have a lot of skill.”
The 2014-2015 version of the Winnipeg Jets could look quite different from this season’s group. Six players are set to become unrestricted free agents, but at least for now, one question mark has been removed from this off season.. Maurice will return to Winnipeg, and the players couldn’t be more excited about it.
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