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Jets coach mindful of expectations for next season entering free agency

Maurice wants Winnipeg to be mentally ready, hopes to keep roster intact

by Tim Campbell / Staff Writer

WINNIPEG -- Paul Maurice said Thursday that he already has spent plenty of time trying to figure out how to deal with increased expectations for the Winnipeg Jets, who reached the Western Conference Final this season.

"It's inevitable," the coach said on the third day of Jets development camp. "When you get to the conference final, the next step everybody thinks is that you should win (the Stanley Cup).

"The fact is there probably isn't a next step. We need to get harder and better at everything we do more consistently."

To help make it happen, Maurice hopes to keep most of the team intact that went 52-20-10 and set a franchise record with 114 points, second in the NHL to the Nashville Predators (117). But the Jets have plenty of roster decisions to make, starting with forward Paul Stastny, who can become an unrestricted free agent July 1.

Acquired by the Jets from the St. Louis Blues on Feb. 26 for two conditional draft picks and forward prospect Erik Foley, Stastny had 13 points (four goals, nine assists) in 19 regular-season games for the Jets and 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in 17 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said he would like to re-sign the center, but it could be difficult to fit him under the NHL salary cap next season. Winnipeg has eight players who can become restricted free agents July 1, including goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who was a Vezina Trophy finalist this season.

Video: VGK@WPG, Gm5: Hellebuyck stands tall to deny Karlsson

Top-pair defensemen Jacob Trouba and Josh Morrissey, forwards Brandon Tanev, Joel Armia, Marko Dano and Adam Lowry, and defenseman Tucker Poolman can also become RFAs. (Forwards Shawn Matthias and Matt Hendricks, defenseman Toby Enstrom and goalie Michael Hutchinson are pending UFAs who are unlikely to return.)

And then there are forwards Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and Andrew Copp, and defenseman Tyler Myers; each has one year remaining on his contract and can sign an extension starting July 1.

Wheeler and Myers are one year away from UFA status. Laine, Connor and Copp are one year away from RFA status.

The Jets are unlikely to lose much of their core that includes center Mark Scheifele, 25; Laine, 20; forward Nikolaj Ehlers, 22; Trouba, 24; Morrissey, 23; and Hellebuyck, 25.

Video: WPG@VGK, Gm3: Scheifele nets record 11th road goal

"We'll see what team we have coming back and then our job in training camp is to get everybody to understand that it's a darn fight to get into the playoffs," Maurice said.

Maurice mentioned two recent examples of how hard it can be to improve on playoff success.

The Edmonton Oilers had 103 points last season, finished second in the Pacific Division and reached the Western Conference Second Round, losing to the Anaheim Ducks in seven games. The Oilers missed the playoffs this season with 78 points.

The Ottawa Senators came within one win of the Stanley Cup Final last season, losing in overtime to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. The Senators missed the playoffs this season with 67 points.

Since the Jets were eliminated by the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5 on May 20, Maurice said he has been "worrying about our heads, our expectations, where we think we're at coming into the season.

"There are good teams that are sitting -- good teams in Canada -- that were sitting in the exact spot that we were over the last two years that didn't make the playoffs (the following year) and it's real," he said. "So getting ourselves mentally prepared for the fight, that will be what I spend the time this summer preparing for, for sure."

The core's improvement and the Jets' maturation this season is reason for optimism, Maurice said.

"If I was to identify a single piece, being able to play the Game 7 that we played against Nashville (a 5-1 road win in the second round) would be something that I thought was really important for our team," he said. "We were able to play without any fear and play with lots of confidence and courage [in] that game and come out and be excited in Game 7 and handle it on the road."

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