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InFlight 2014-2015 Vol. 1 - Season Preview

by Mitchell Clinton (@MClinton007) / Winnipeg Jets

When Head Coach Paul Maurice met the media for a final time at the end of the 2013-2014 season, two things were very clear: Maurice wanted to be the coach of the Winnipeg Jets, and that if he was the coach to start 2014-2015, training camp would test the players' fitness level early and often.

Fast-forward through the summer months and Maurice has a four-year contract, and the training camp lived up to his promises. During the weeks of practices before the regular season, Maurice often said the increased conditioning component served an important purpose.

"Each of the games will be played in an adverse situation, very similar to our last few games of the year last year," he said. "They're going to be physically tired. We're going to give them a chance to show what they can do, tired. They have to fight through that in the regular season when there's something on the line."

Returning veterans and even the younger prospects heeded Maurice's warning and came to training camp midway through September ready to go. But the players weren't the only ones doing homework in the off-season. The 47-year-old Maurice spent a lot of time watching film of games the Winnipeg Jets played before his arrival in January 2014.

"I went back and watched the games, and found out what roles different players were used in," he said. "I also spent quite a bit of time working on system changes that better suit our team.

"We're going to play an exciting, very aggressive brand of hockey. That's by design. More importantly it's about the players we have. We have good size, we have good speed, we can get in on the puck. That's our game."

But the fact the Winnipeg Jets finished 22nd in the NHL in goals against last season didn't get by Maurice either. Despite the aggressive style he wants his team to play, he wants his team to be responsible in the defensive zone as well.

"We have to become a better defensive team. That's the one metric, you look back at the last five Stanley Cup teams, you can rank whatever your advanced stats tell you that are important," Maurice said. "No team, no Stanley Cup champion ranks in the top 10 in all of them. But the one area that's consistent is that they're a good defensive team."

All the changes that Maurice wants to implement will be easier to work on from behind the bench all season. That's just one of the reasons Winnipeg Jets General Manager, Kevin Cheveldayoff, quickly signed Maurice in the off-season.

"When he came in part-way through last season, he made a tremendous impact. But as everything goes, when things are secure moving forward and once we were able to solidify he was going to be our coach moving forward, it got things on the right track," Cheveldayoff said. "I think understanding his systems right from the beginning, the level of fitness the players are going to be demanded each and every day, I think it's important the players get it right from day one."

Captain Andrew Ladd agrees with Cheveldayoff. He says the players took Maurice's words to heart at the end of last season.

"The message was sent at the end of last year," said Ladd, who registered 54 points in 78 games played in 2013-2014. "Everyone did a good job making sure they took care of themselves and gave themselves the best chance to come in here in good shape and perform at the highest level."

Speaking of performing at the highest level, 28-year-old forward Blake Wheeler led the Jets in points last season with 69 points. For that reason and many others, Wheeler's jersey will look a bit different this season. He'll wear an A as an associate captain, along with defenceman Mark Stuart.

"I take it with a lot of pride. I've considered myself a leader the last couple years on this team," Wheeler said. "I think we have a lot of leaders on our team, not just the guys wearing letters. There's a lot of guys who have large leadership roles on the team, so for me to go along with (Ladd) and (Stuart), I think we have a great core there, and there are a lot of guys that are leaders on our team too."

Through training camp, Wheeler was lined up with Mark Scheifele and Evander Kane. The three players had limited time together last season, with both Kane and Scheifele missing time with injuries. Entering his second full season, the 21-year-old Scheifele would like to improve on his 34 points from last season. But he also knows even with all the speed and skill on his line, all three have to be equally committed to the defensive side of the game.

"Obviously it would be good of we filled the net," he said. "I think a big thing for our line is to be reliable, to keep building as a line and be reliable as a line, and just let the offense come from there."

Scheifele, along with defenceman Jacob Trouba, find themselves in a tricky position, but an important one. On the one hand, they're entering their second season in the NHL. They still have a lot to learn, but at the same time, they're looked up to by the younger prospects who are trying to make the big club. Scheifele says when players like 2014 first round pick Nikolaj Ehlers asks him questions, he likes to help.

"Going through the last three years I know what they go through," said Scheifele. "It's a huge adjustment. You go from junior, to the rookie tournament, then exhibition games. I'm trying to help as much as I can. I'm still learning too, but I lend a helping hand when I can."

New additions like Mathieu Perreault and TJ Galiardi will also try to lend a helping hand to the Winnipeg Jets this season. Perreault, 26, played four seasons with the Washington Capitals organization before playing the 2013-2014 campaign with the Anaheim Ducks. Head Coach Paul Maurice is excited to see how Perreault contributes.

"He's a guy with some skill that goes into your line up that isn't going to roll guys over, but he will finish every check." Maurice said. "What he's going to do, he's going to give that line a chance to score some goals. He's a smart guy who will play defensively. Whoever I put Mathieu with, we're not looking for that line to hold water. We're looking to that line to go out and generate some things because they can."

Combine new defensive systems, a new associate captain, an intense training camp, and high competition for roster spots thanks to prospects like Adam Lowry and Josh Morrissey having AHL experience under their belt, and the 2014-2015 Winnipeg Jets season is bound to have a number of exciting nights at MTS Centre.

Maurice feels his team is ready. He senses a competitive fire in his team's dressing room that is innate in every player.

"I always felt our fight was good. That might be the hardest thing to get, is a group who will compete hard enough," he said. "The consistency of the quality of our game has lots of room to improve. Before we understand what we have, we've got to get everyone flying in the same direction."

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