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Jets express faith in coach Maurice after first-round exit

Has support of GM Cheveldayoff, captain Wheeler

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

WINNIPEG -- The Winnipeg Jets will likely make plenty of changes this offseason, but coach is not expected to be among them.

General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff expressed faith in coach Paul Maurice Monday, two days after the Jets were eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, losing to the St. Louis Blues in six games in the best-of-7 Western Conference First Round.

"There's never been a waning confidence in the coaching staff on my part," Cheveldayoff said.

Jets captain Blake Wheeler left no gray area about Maurice, who has 695 victories, seventh among NHL coaches.

"I think any time you don't win, you get fingers pointed," he said. "I would say you point the first one at me. It's my job to get this team kind of to that next level. The coach isn't on the ice, the players are on the ice. We're the ones that are accountable. One of the most winningest coaches of all time in the history of this game. So, I think his record speaks for itself. Obviously, I'd go through a brick wall for the guy. I don't want to play for anyone else. That's where I stand."

Cheveldayoff's focus will be how to deal with pending free agents and fit as many of them as possible under the projected salary cap of $83 million next season.

Forwards Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and Andrew Copp, defensemen Jacob Trouba, Joe Morrow and Nathan Beaulieu and goalie Laurent Brossoit can become restricted free agents on July 1.

Forwards Brandon Tanev, Kevin Hayes, Par Lindholm and Matt Hendricks and defensemen Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot can become unrestricted free agents on July 1.

 

[RELATED: Laine played most of season with back injury | Reasons Jets were eliminated by Blues]

 

Laine, who had 30 goals this season, and Connor, who had 34, are coming out of their entry-level contracts and are likely to earn substantial raises. Trouba, about to end a one-year contract at $5.5 million, Myers and Chiarot make up half of the Jets' top-six defensemen and have to be considered priorities but it's unknown if there's room for all of them.

"We have some tough decisions to make this summer, a lot of them," Cheveldayoff said. "Is the team going to be the same? I could stand here last year with greater certainty that there was going to be a lot of pieces that were going to do our darnedest to keep and come back, and even then we couldn't do it all then. This year, there's certainly going to be some changes."

Frustration was evident Monday when the Jets held exit meetings and cleaned out their locker room.

"I don't know if you can put your finger on it, but we always felt that we were just a little off," forward Adam Lowry said.

The levels of disappointment varied but there's no debate that this season did not match the buzz created last season by a 114-point regular season and an appearance in the Western Conference Final, where they lost to the Vegas Golden Knights in five games.

Maurice said he believes he knows where to start the search for the way forward.

"The piece to our game that I don't think ever came together the way we wanted it to was the defensive side of our game," Maurice said. "If it's right you're holding the Stanley Cup.

"There'd be 30 teams with questions about how it ended. We're on that path of developing a real good strong team. I think I feel better about our play in the St. Louis series than I did in the Vegas series from last year. That was a hard, grinder. Four one-goal games that we lost. It was tight. They're a real good team. So it's one goal that we've got to find a way to manufacture. And I don't think it's on the offensive side of the game."

Video: Get down to the ice for the Jets-Blues Game 6 battle

The Jets (47-30-5, second in the Central Division) allowed 243 goals this season, 15th-best in the NHL. That was a slip from last season, when their 216 goals against was fifth-best.

They scored 270 goals this season (seventh-most), nearly the same as last season, when they had 273 (second-most).

Maurice was touting the season as another growth experience despite the failure to win a postseason series in 2019.

"It's not what went wrong," he said. "I don't feel that. It's part of the process of getting better and building and getting stronger. I'm just as excited about this team, maybe more so, heading into next year than I was this year."

He said the Jets had the second-youngest group of forwards before the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline, a group still learning how to defend, grind and be patient.

"We just have to take a skilled group and move them along their development so that they're really good at both ends," he said.

Video: Blues oust Jets in six games, advance to Second Round

Expectations next season aren't likely to be diminished much but a couple of hints were dropped on Monday that tempering them a little after they soared so high this season might be the best way to move forward.

"Making the playoffs in this League is never easy," Wheeler said. "You can't take that for granted. It's a hard trophy to win. Even if you figure out what we need, it doesn't mean we're going to win it."

Veteran center Bryan Little said he considers elimination in the first round this season a lesson learned, not a step back.

"You don't just decide you want to win the Stanley Cup and it's easy from there, that every year you're going to have a chance at it," Little said. "People were talking about the Stanley Cup when we got to training camp this year, which was crazy. As players and as these guys know, nothing's guaranteed and nothing's guaranteed that you'll even be in the playoffs any given year. We expected more out of ourselves this year and next year we're going to come hungry again."  

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