The first playoff berth since relocation in 2011. 99 points. 43 wins.
All of these are stats Head Coach Paul Maurice wants his Winnipeg Jets players to forget.
Well, maybe not all of them.
“Clearly you want to take all your lessons and all the progress you think you made last year,” said Maurice, entering his second full season behind the Jets bench. “But the mistake that gets made at times is that somehow life gets easier because you had a bit of success the year prior. So we start from scratch from day one. We’ll go back and re-teach the foundations of our system, and most importantly, try to re-create from last year the competitive levels that we did get to.”
Life in the National Hockey League’s Central Division never gets easier. Five of the division’s seven teams made it to the post season in 2014-2015. Maurice feels the grind of playing in the Central comes from the depth all the teams have.
“They all do something well. Nashville’s defence is so incredibly strong compared to the rest of the league. Chicago has won three Stanley Cups, St. Louis has been right there knocking on the door, Dallas continues to add offensive threats to their team,” Maurice said. “Colorado finishes with 116 points the year before, then misses the playoffs. You know they’re going to be a force with the young players there. Depth of talent, depth at core positions.”
The Jets find themselves in the middle of that depth conversation.
Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec is coming off a career year. Blake Wheeler was a +26 and registered over 60 points for the third time in four seasons. Andrew Ladd recorded a career high 62 points. Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, and Adam Lowry continue to develop and play bigger roles. And on the blue line, Ben Chiarot signed a two-year deal in June to remain with a defensive group that includes all the same players that had the Jets in the NHL’s top ten for least goals against.
“You have to be hungry every year you come in here, and fight for your ice time and fight for your spot, and prove every year that you should be here, and you belong here,” Chiarot said. It’s great… You have to rise to the occasion and bring your best to the ice every night.”
But despite that competition, the Winnipeg Jets dressing room remains a tight-knit group heading into 2015-2016. Adam Lowry, fresh off a rookie year with 11 goals and 23 points, says building on those relationships early in the season will be key.
|Byfuglien, Wheeler, Perreault #85 and Ladd celebrate a first period goal against the Anaheim Ducks in Game 4 of the Western Conference First Round Series during the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs (Getty Images) |
“You can’t afford to give up three or four games early in the year. That was evident (last year),” Lowry said. “We didn’t have a playoff spot until the final few games last year and that could have been totally different if we got off to a better start. We’re looking forward to that.”
Looking forward is a good way to describe Alexander Burmistrov, who returns to the Jets line-up after two seasons in the KHL. The 23-year-old forward knew he wanted to return, but a conversation with Maurice at the IIHF World Hockey Championship in Minsk sealed it.
“That conversation meant a lot,” Burmistrov said. “I don’t know how to explain it, but at that time I knew I really wanted to come back.
“I’m really excited. … I want to help the team win games.”
“I was real excited about the idea of him coming back because you just can’t find these guys,” Maurice said of Burmistrov. “There aren’t first round picks drafted that high that you can trade for easily. So we get a guy that comes back to the fold, and I happen to think he’s a very good player.”
Speaking of returning players, Drew Stafford returns to the fold after scoring 19 points in 26 games with the Winnipeg Jets last season. Stafford was part of the trade with Buffalo that also brought Tyler Myers, Joel Armia, and Brendan Lemieux to Winnipeg.
Stafford signed a two-year contract on June 30, 2015. At the age of 29, he looks forward to not only contributing on the ice, but helping the younger players in the organization learn how to be a professional. He said witnessed that type of leadership when he arrived following the trade on February 11.
“What Paul enforced with his leaders, and having a guy like Ladd as your captain, he's just a phenomenal example of a guy that takes care of himself and he's 100 percent professional,” said Stafford. “It starts with your leadership, it starts with your culture. That's not your players, that your leadership coming from up top. It's the way you carry yourself.
“Especially now, we have some younger guys coming up, you leave a pretty big impact on them, the way you carry yourself… It seems Paul set a certain type of standard last year, and we're going to try and carry that over.”
While Stafford compliments Maurice for the leadership in the Jets dressing room, the second fastest coach to 500 career wins credits the players for setting that standard.
“How those veteran players come back to camp, it starts with their conditioning. How they look on the ice, how hard they drive, is really the first opportunity for our young players, our Moose players now in town, but our draft picks, to see a National Hockey League level,” Maurice said. “We’re very fortunate, just with the guys that wear the C’s and A’s in our room, they’re the hardest drivers that we have in practice every day. That leadership sets the tone for your organization, and sets the tone for the Winnipeg Jets this year.”
That type of leadership set by captain Ladd, and alternate captains Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart may wear the letters on their jerseys, but Maurice has said even players without those letters have an impact in the dressing room.
That atmosphere has the coach excited to get back to work.
“Coaching in the NHL is never easy. Some days it’s not overly enjoyable. But being in a locker room like this, with these kind of men. It’s what hockey is all about,” Maurice said. “I’m proud to be their coach. But I’m excited every day when I come in because I know how hard they’re going to work. I’ve never had a team where I thought as much about holding back in practice, not pushing them quite as hard in practice because they just go so hard. It’s a fun place to work.”
— Mitchell Clinton, WinnipegJets.com