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Maurice, young players have Jets feeling optimistic

by Patrick Williams

WINNIPEG -- The Winnipeg Jets have to find a way to top last season.

For years, merely reaching the Stanley Cup Playoffs had been a key goal for the Jets. The franchise had not reached the playoffs since 2007, when it played as the Atlanta Thrashers, and an ever-changing group of players had come and gone without a trip to the postseason.

The Jets finally reached the playoffs last season, though the good times ended quickly in a sweep by the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference First Round. Still, the Jets managed to combine the test of a late-season playoff race with further establishing MTS Centre as one of the loudest and most intimidating buildings in the NHL.

General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has patiently gone about trying to rebuild the Jets' prospect base from the bottom up. His moves began to pay off last season, and he has more prospects on the way for coach Paul Maurice.

Here are four reasons for optimism for the Jets:

Paul Maurice factor: Maurice had a long to-do list when he replaced Claude Noel in January 2014. Spotty defensive play, an inability to master Noel's system and a need to upgrade the Jets' fitness levels quickly surfaced as major tasks that Maurice needed to handle.

Maurice used the second half of the 2013-14 season to introduce his system and standards before sending his players home for the offseason with an edict to arrive to training camp in peak physical condition. The Winnipeg dressing room has responded to Maurice's system and personality, and he enjoys a clear mandate from management and his leadership group to guide the Jets.

Commitment to defense: The Jets allowed 204 goals last season, the fewest in an 82-game season in franchise history, and 28.7 shots per game, ninth best in the NHL. That was a significant improvement from the 2013-14 season, when they allowed 30.1 shots per game, 17th in the League.

Opposing coaches repeatedly pointed to the Jets' commitment to responsible defensive play last season. Winnipeg built a reputation as a team able to combine its considerable speed with size, enabling a strong forecheck, physical play and an up-tempo pace that suited Maurice's personnel.

Rising young players: Center Mark Scheifele and defenseman Jacob Trouba make up the Jets' present and future core. Each player has two full NHL seasons of experience and has grown into an important role. Scheifele played all 82 games last season and locked down a role as the Jets' second-line center. Trouba helped solidify a defense plagued by injuries all season.

Center Adam Lowry also emerged as a surprise last season. After one season in the American Hockey League, Lowry moved into the third-line center role and immediately earned Maurice's trust, something that is not easily gained. Lowry (6-foot-5, 207 pounds) brings size and physical play, established himself as defensively responsible, and scored 11 goals.

Left wing Nikolaj Ehlers headlines the next group of Jets prospects who could provide further reinforcement, perhaps as soon as this season.

"There are some players on the ice that are going to play in the NHL sooner rather than later," Maurice told the Jets website at Winnipeg's development camp July 3. "There are some players out there that are fairly close to NHL-ready."

Experience through trial and error: Reaching the playoffs allowed an unproven team to sample the rigors and pace of postseason hockey. A significant portion of the Jets core had never experienced the playoffs. The battle-tested Ducks provided further illustration of how far the Jets still need to go.

Injuries test every NHL team, but the Jets underwent a particularly trying season. At one point, they had to make do without their top four defensemen.

Rather than allowing it to throw the season off course, Winnipeg instead used the experience to grow. Unheralded rookie Ben Chiarot stepped into the lineup and quickly established himself as a capable defenseman. Veteran Dustin Byfuglien, previously criticized for inconsistent play as a defenseman, returned to the blue line with Chiarot and adhered to Maurice's defense-first approach.

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