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Maurice's influence created winning structure for Jets

by Patrick Williams /

WINNIPEG -- When Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice arrived in Jan. 2014, he inherited a team that was beset by a relocation from Atlanta in 2011, years of losing, player turnover and an assortment of coaches. Maurice went to work to restructure the Jets' on-ice systems play and structure, but he also worked to create a new mindset inside the dressing room.

"I think [Maurice] is the biggest factor looking at where we are today," said right wing Blake Wheeler, who has been with franchise since 2011. "He changed everything, realistically. He just brought what we needed. The way he communicates, the way he coaches, it just was a perfect fit for our group, making us realize what we are, and what we are not. It was a perfect hire."

Once a team prone to playing the way that opponents wanted to play, the Jets have learned to adhere to their structure in any situation and even impose their style on other teams.

"How you play the game, how you handle the adversity in the game, is a process," Maurice said. "We want to recognize it as many times as we possibly can over the course of the season, so that [each] time it happens, we get a little bit better at handling it.

"You can build so much more off a foundation of character than any other thing. Talent and skill comes and goes over the course of the season, but the character always stays there. You're going to have good times and bad times in the regular season and the playoffs, and when those bad times come, the only thing that you've got left is that character. How you define it, the ardent pursuit of excellence without the guarantee of reward, I think that they've had that feeling here.

"They've worked hard. [When] things weren't going the way they wanted them to go, they kept working hard, and that's why they deserve the results that they got this [season], and that's why they believe in each other."

Wheeler is part of a core that includes forward Bryan Little, defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, captain Andrew Ladd and defenseman Mark Stuart. Each of the five players endured years of losing and missed opportunities. Little has never played a playoff game and the other four players have not been on playoff teams since 2010.

In no small part because of Maurice, those five players and their teammates have a chance to experience the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Jets begin their Western Conference First Round series against the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday at Honda Center (10:30 p.m.; CNBC, TVA, SN, PRIME).

"[Maurice] brought in an identity and a system where as long as we don't get scored on, we're going to have a chance to win [each] night, and that's what we bought into," Wheeler said. "He fits our identity as a team, his personality and what he brings to the rink [each] day. It's how we practice, and how we play, and why we've had success."

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