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Maurice: Jets ready to take the next step

With new contract in hand, Jets head coach has high expectations for the team this year

by Ryan Dittrick @ryandittrick / WinnipegJets.com

Like many in Winnipeg, Paul Maurice has higher-than-ever expectations for the upcoming hockey season.

"I expect our team to get better at everything, in all areas of our game," he said. "We scored a lot of goals last year - seventh in the National Hockey League - and I think we can score more. We absolutely have to become a better defensive hockey team, and some of that is experience and understanding the game, but the other part of is (focusing on) certain things to be good defensively: Staying out of the penalty box, blocking shots, grinding when the puck's in your own end.

It takes some young players a while to mature into that, but we're going to push them hard in that area this year."

And once again, 'Mo,' as the players call him, will be the man delivering the message.

On Thursday, the Jets revealed that along General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, Maurice had agreed to a multi-year contract extension to remain head coach of the Winnipeg Jets.

Video: EXCLUSIVE | Paul Maurice

"From the very first conversation that I had with Kevin a couple of days before I took the job [in 2014], every part of his plan was laid out and that included me being a part of this organization. I'm really pleased to be able to do that going forward," Maurice said.

"We're excited about how it's unfolded, the direction we're going in, and we're excited about being a part of it."

Maurice, who was entering the last of a four-year pact, has a 136-112-33 record behind the bench in Winnipeg after taking over from Claude Noel midway through the 2013-14 season.

The following year, Maurice led the Jets to their first playoff appearance after finishing with a franchise high 43-26-13 record for 99 points.

In more than 20 years as an NHL head coach, Maurice has an all-time record of 596-569-99-101 between the Jets, Hartford Whalers, Carolina Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs. In 2002, he led the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup Final, but lost in five games to the Detroit Red Wings.

Coaching the Jets, he says, reminds him of another experience he had early in his career when a young Whalers team needed a fresh approach in retaining star talent.

"It's been somewhat similar to my first tour in the NHL with Hartford. It was a program that hadn't had a lot of success and had a lot of work to do just trying to acquire players that would give you long-term success. Even going back the last three years, when (Mark) Scheifele, (Jacob) Trouba and (Adam) Lowry were just breaking into the league, and you look now and they've become drivers on our team. The last two years have been so important for us - not just getting young players, but good young players that will be an important part of this program for a long time.

"We've found what we'd hoped. There's some great talent with some great skill there."

Video: All of Patrik Laine's Goals

Getting to this point - where the Jets look poised to have a breakout season - hasn't been easy, mind you. In the summer of 2015, after the Jets were swept in the first round of the playoffs, the team made the decision to go in a different direction, feeling the 'window' with their veteran squad was closing and youth and high-end offensive talent would be the ticket to long-term success.

In time, the likes of Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba, Nikolaj Ehlers, Adam Lowry and eventually Patrik Laine went from individuals with top-end pedigree to the core of a team on the rise.

"The guys that we're talking about, they're still young - but they're critical players and they play big minutes," Maurice said. We need them to accept that they're drivers now."

While Maurice knew some growing pains would be felt over the past two years, he doesn't excuse the results on the basis of youth. The goal, he says, never changes, no matter what the circumstance.

"It's OK to have that plan, but it's not OK to excuse the seasons for it," Maurice said. "We go into the games trying to win and we don't leave a loss as 'acceptable' because we're young. That's important going forward. These players haven't been excused for missing the playoffs for two years because we're young and then we decide now is the time because we're old enough. The better way to do it is to find a way to win every year because that's the pressure we're going to be under going forward, and those are the expectations we have: Incremental improvement in all areas of our game; individually and as a team."

Because of that, and after years of steady progression with some of the team's youth, the Jets are entering the 2017-18 campaign with far fewer unknowns in key roles, up and down the lineup.

Video: MEDIA AVAILABILITY | Paul Maurice

Add Steve Mason and Dmitry Kulikov to the mix and the fight for jobs will be as fierce as ever when camp kicks off next week.

"We will see a far different kind of camp, competitively. I can list probably 15 guys who are on the team (no matter what), but how that group rounds out as a huge impact on how we look on the ice. … The last two seasons I've had a lot of names on the board that I wasn't even sure who they were as players. You can watch them on video all you want, but you've got to play in this league. I don't have that anymore. We've got a far better understanding of what players should look like, and then we also now know where the competition is. We've had a lot of youth in that Bottom 6 group that got the opportunity to play through a lot of things, and that's because we didn't have a whole lot of other options. Now there's competition and these guys are coming into their second and third years in the NHL, so there's an expectation."

The Jets, with Maurice at the helm, are no longer in build mode.

They're ready to take the next step.

- Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com

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