WINNIPEG - The vibe around the exit meetings at the conclusion of the Winnipeg Jets 2018-19 season was much different than a season ago.
But if you ask head coach Paul Maurice, this season may have been more beneficial to the young Jets roster than making it all the way to the Western Conference Final in 2018.
"I think we've probably learned a hell of a lot more this year than we learned last year about how hard this thing is and the sacrifices that our group - as a pretty gifted offensive group - have to make to the overall team winning," Maurice said.
That doesn't take the sting out of the First Round loss to the St. Louis Blues, which wrapped up two nights ago at Enterprise Center in Game 6.
Video: YEAR END | Paul Maurice
Each of the four losses the Jets suffered were by one goal.
"We went to-to-toe with them, four one-goal games, we were just a goal off in a couple too many of those games," said captain Blake Wheeler, who finished the series with five points.
Despite how close the series was, with the lead changing hands in every game but the deciding sixth, Wheeler admitted the team never got to where it wanted.
Not just in the postseason, but for most of the regular season as well.
"Our game, all year, we were trying to find it a little bit," said Wheeler. "From the beginning, even while we were winning, it was something we kept working at."
Coming off a 2017-18 campaign that saw the club finish with a franchise best 52-20-10 record and 114 points, the Jets held the Central Division lead for most of the 2018-19 campaign.
Through it all, they were a club dealing with the pressure of heightened expectations - both inside and outside the dressing room - for the first time.
"I'm not saying we didn't have that this year, but it felt like even when we were winning, even when we were rolling, it just didn't feel the same. It didn't feel the game was as dominant as it was the year before," Wheeler said, referring to the team's league best home record in 2017-18.
"From a mental standpoint, that's probably more what was going on than an actual flaw to our game," said Wheeler. "You get used to beating teams 4-1 and have them leave your building, the next one comes in, and you do the same thing.
"All of a sudden this is a destination where people are bringing their 'A' game now. That might just not be the way it works anymore."
Video: YEAR END | Scheifele, Wheeler
Winnipeg still finished the regular season with the NHL's sixth-best home record in 2018-19 at 25-12-4.
Overall, the 47-30-5 record gave the Jets 99 points and second spot in the Central.
Offensively, the Jets were right on pace with the previous campaign. They scored 270 times this season (compared to 273 in 2017-18). But it was the goals against that crept up - from 216 to 243.
Those extra goals seemed to show up in the postseason match-up with the Blues. The Jets lost 40-minute leads in three games - but ended up losing two of those, including the heartbreaker in Game 5 with 15 seconds left in regulation.
"It's one goal that we have to find a way to manufacture, and I don't think it's on the offensive side of the game," said Maurice.
"We weren't quite a good enough defensive group this year - I don't know if that's start to finish - but it wasn't a strength."
Maurice felt the team's defensive play was its "dirty little secret" last season. He felt teams weren't prepared for how well the Jets played defensively in 2017-18 (mostly due to the offensive firepower on the roster), but that all changed this season.
"We had a lot more defensive-minded teams that didn't come in to play the Winnipeg Jets, they came in to defend against the Winnipeg Jets," Maurice said. "We were in the process of struggling with that a little bit this year, of getting used to getting checked as hard as we got checked."
Video: YEAR END | Myers, Morrissey
While the loss leaves a feeling of wanting more, Maurice sees a way forward.
His summer will be spent taking a deep dive into the team's analytics and video. It's a project that was kept up throughout the season, but now there is time to strategize a way to get better at the areas that need improving and implement a full plan for training camp in September.
There are a number of contracts to get done before then - seven players are unrestricted free agents while another seven are restricted free agents - but Maurice feels that the team's window to content for the game's ultimate prize is still very much open.
"There are just too many young players that are going to get better here. There are too many guys between the 20 and 26 range that aren't at their peak or at their best," said Maurice. "Our team is going to change, clearly. The cap is going to affect that. Those players that are coming back I think have lots of room to improve."
Wheeler agrees, adding with the league being competitive as ever before, every season brings a new opportunity.
"Anyone can beat anyone, and that's a fact nowadays," said Wheeler. "You have a team like Tampa losing in four, that's a pretty considerable anomaly. Even Calgary, ourselves, there is really no upsets anymore. I don't think teams go into series feeling like a heavy favourite or underdog anymore.
"It's right there for everyone."