WINNIPEG - With almost a quarter of the season in his rear-view mirror, Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice is pleased with the team's progress but would still mark its report card "needs improvement."
"We've got the very early stages of a good foundation and a good understanding of the things we can do on a nightly basis, things we can replicate," he said Wednesday, a day after the Jets' 3-1 home-ice win over the New Jersey Devils.
"There's lots of good in our game. There's things I really believe we can get better at, just through repetition more than anything else, so we're right where we could be."
The Jets (10-7-3) woke up Wednesday in third place in the Central Division, good enough for a playoff spot if the season were over, but of course it's a long way from being over.
Maurice says he's taking a similarly long-term view of the team's progress.
"We're early stages in a bunch of things. How we generate offence, and how we generate offence and still be a good reliable hockey team. There's lots of areas of our game that I think will get better, I'm just not sure we can get better in a week or two."
The team has started to develop its identify as a defence-first organization, for example.
"For our defensive play that we have some confidence (in) now, it's done over months and years really, until the thought process becomes an instinct."
Defencman Mark Stuart says those things are taking hold as the entire team focuses on tight, positional defensive play, that cuts down chances for their opponents and makes it hard to get over Winnipeg's blue-line.
"As a defencemen you can only be aggressive if the forwards are in the right spot," he says. "For the most part we've had that. It's still a process though and we're still learning, we're still getting better."
The Jets also take a lot of penalties but they have one of the better records killing them in the league. The Jets have an NHL-high 277 penalty minutes, although Pittsburgh edges them out in minutes per game, but the Jets have only given up five goals and have scored two of their own short-handed.
Maurice says they're working on reducing stick infractions.
"Some of the others are just a byproduct of 'compete' so I'm not worried about that," he said.
He has no problem with what he refers to as the "compete level" the team brings to every game.
Their power play also currently ranks second last in the NHL and the Jets want that to change, but even there the coach sees some reason for optimism.
"For us, our shot attempts, we're over 200 on our power plays. Just slightly over 50 per cent are actually getting to the net. We're getting an awful lot blocked. So how we're getting to the net has got to change a little bit."
Offence is still a problem and just 38 goals so far. The Jets rank 28th in the NHL, ahead of only the Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres, although in their last four periods of hockey the team has managed to score six times. They're also averaging just over 30 shots per game.
"There is that expectation the pucks will start going in the net for these guys," Maurice said.
Centre Bryan Little, third on the team's scoring list this season with five goals and 11 points, agrees and adds no one is too unhappy with the current state of affairs. Little and current linemates Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler didn't hit the net Tuesday but the three have scored 20 of the team's 38 goals.
"I think we're liking the way things are going," he said.
"I don't think anybody would have guessed us to be one of the best defensive teams and at times struggle to score goals but that's kind of what's happening. We're not scoring a ton of goals and our power play's not doing well but we're playing great defensively . . .
"If we keep playing great defensively, the goals will come."
The Jets face the Detroit Red Wings (9-4-5) at the MTS Centre Thursday night.