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Returning Maurice set to point Jets in right direction

by Patrick Williams

WINNIPEG -- The decision for Paul Maurice to remain behind the Winnipeg Jets bench was an easy one for the veteran NHL coach.

The one big hurdle for Maurice was family considerations, because his wife and children did not accompany him to Winnipeg after he replaced Claude Noel on Jan. 12.

But when the Jets offered Maurice a four-year contract extension earlier this week, the decision to uproot and head to Winnipeg turned out to be an easy one for his wife and children as well.

"They all smiled and said, 'Let's go,'" Maurice said in a conference call Wednesday.

Maurice challenged his team last week with a 90-minute practice session that included nearly an hour of skating drills. The practice came the day before a game against the Boston Bruins in the first of a back-to-back set that wrapped up the season.

The response to that practice reinforced his desire to return to Winnipeg.

"Every time we [went through adversity], they really responded," Maurice said. "The core veteran guys want that direction. They just want to win."

There was a possibility Maurice would have attracted suitors for other NHL coaching jobs, especially after he pulled the Jets back into contention for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the Western Conference. But the Jets turned out to be the right fit for the 47-year-old.

"I had my eyes on this team for a while," said Maurice, who will serve as an assistant coach for Canada at the IIHF World Hockey Championship in May in Minsk, Belarus.

Now the work will begin for Maurice as he tries to reshape an organization that has missed the playoffs for seven consecutive seasons. The franchise has never won a playoff game, and a long history of losing followed the team to Winnipeg after its relocation from Atlanta in 2011.

"We're trying to move to the middle of the pack en route to becoming a team that competes in the postseason," Maurice said.

What will that entail?

"Structure," Maurice said. "It's structure on and off the ice. That concept of who we are as Winnipeg Jets. When the fans come to see us play, they understand what they're going to see."

Another key target will be the Jets' defensive play. Opponents averaged 2.82 goals per game, which ranked 22nd in the League.

"Our overall defensive play is a critical thing," Maurice said. "We clearly have to become a better defensive hockey club. There isn't a team [among the elite in the League] that is poor defensively, and we've got to try to get to that."

The Jets' 90-minute practice session last week is something Maurice's players can expect when the reconvene for training camp in Winnipeg in September. He wants a fitter team capable of playing the fast-paced style he thinks will best suit his players' strengths.

But Maurice's emphasis on fitness will be only one part of an overall push toward improving his players' accountability. He explained that expectations and consequences will be defined clearly.

"First [players have] to know what is expected before you can hold anyone accountable, and that is on and off the ice," Maurice said. "The structure of who you are, this is what we do and this is what we hold you accountable to."

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