WINNIPEG – No team ever goes through an offseason making zero changes, but from the sounds of it, don’t count on the Winnipeg Jets looking much different next season.
After finishing on a seven-game win streak to wind up with 87 points, the front office seems convinced that with a little more experience under their belts, the young players that drive the Jets will lead them into the playoffs next year.
“It’s going to look an awful lot like this team but five months older,” head coach Paul Maurice said in his year-end press conference. “We’ll be a good team. Will we be a great team? It all depends on how far we can push ’em, how far we can get ’em over the course of the year. We’ll have far fewer players in our lineup that are going through this for the first time.”
There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that the top-six forwards on this team have potential to be among the best in the league offensively next year. The biggest area of concern is how to keep the puck out of their own net.
“What Connor [Hellebuyck] went through this year, dealing with the adversity, dealing with the bumps in his confidence, he’s going to learn how to fight now, learn to compete harder. That may be the most important piece that young players can learn,” Maurice said. “Our goaltending has to get better. Incrementally, like every other piece of our game. Like our power play, like our penalty kill, like our 5-on-5 game, and like our offensive game. How we generate offence has to continue to get better. Those things affect all others. But, yeah, our goaltending has to get better next year.”
As for the stability of Maurice’s job (he is entering the last year of his contract), general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff gave his bench boss a vote of confidence.”Paul Maurice is the coach of this hockey team. It goes to what we’ve asked Paul to do. When Paul and I sat down when he took over the team, we talked about the steps that were going to be necessary to build this franchise. He took on that task, understanding that it wasn’t going to be smooth. Paul has coached for the best interest of the future of this team, as we have asked him.”
With respect to the entire coaching staff, some have wondered if guys like defensive coach Charlie Huddy and goalie coach Wade Flaherty will be allowed to return. Cheveldayoff doesn’t anticipate any changes to the coaching staff. “We’d like to be better defensively, we’d like to be better on the discipline side. Can you find ways to incrementally get better? Can we teach this group, can they cut down on some of those defensive things, can they cut down on the goals against? Can they do that and continue to grow offensively? That’s the next step. We’re always going to look outside to try to add, try to improve or push. We have to learn from this experience.”
Chevy and Maurice spoke for a combined 75 minutes, and constantly hammered on the same points: we like what he have; we have young guys that have to build on this experience; goaltending wasn’t a strong point but we have faith in Hellebuyck; lather, rinse, repeat.
The front office believes they have been dealt a nice hand with the young talent that they have, and they are right to think that. They haven’t pushed all their chips into the middle of the table. They are right to have faith in them to learn from their mistakes. But there’s no guarantee that will happen because there are never any guarantees in sports.
Hellebuyck will be given every opportunity to be the number one goalie of this team, and Cheveldayoff hinted that bringing someone in to help out in the crease. He also showed faith that there are young guys in the system, like Kyle Connor, Jack Roslovic and even Brendan Lemieux, that could fill holes in the bottom of the lineup. That means creating competition with the likes of Nic Petan and Marko Dano for roster spots.
On the back-end, there is less help on the way. Tucker Poolman just had the first of two surgeries for his shoulder injury, and Cheveldayoff said he expects Poolman to push for a spot on the team next year. Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey had very strong seasons, but the depth on defence has to be concerning, and it will be interesting to see what the team does to address this in the off-season.
The front office has been patient and they’ve asked Jets fans to be patient as well. That patience is wearing thin among many of the team’s followers, but Cheveldayoff and the rest are banking on the wait being well worth it. One year from now, we’ll have a much better idea of how well the plan has worked.