Paul Maurice understood that when he took over the controls of the Winnipeg Jets two weeks ago, he was inheriting a work in progress.
The Jets had just dropped five straight games, further cementing their last place position in the Central Division and were at an all-time low in confidence both on and off the ice. It was damaged goods that Maurice not only knew was there but expected it to be.
“That’s a function of every coaching change,” said Maurice following Saturday’s 5-4 overtime win against the Toronto Maple Leafs. “I’ve been through it twice in-season. You’re grinding those guys at the end so hard. What ends up happening is you end up coaching sticks. When things aren’t going well, the videos that you show them are the things that aren’t going well, and if your team cares — and these guys really do care, they really want to play hard — their confidence has to get shook up.”
Safe to say that was life for the Jets prior to the last six games under Maurice. With Claude Noel at the helm, night in and night out the Jets would get outplayed, out chanced and more often than not, outscored. For every step forward there was always one, two or three steps back.
A steady progression
Fast forward to present day and you can start to see a steady progression for the Jets. That’s not to suggest mistakes aren’t still being made. Costly errors still occur even with a new face behind the bench.
Just ask Zach Bogosian. The Jets defenceman coughed up the puck late in the third period against the Leafs after a failed attempt to make a play in the defensive zone. The result: a tied hockey game, 4-4, with just 1:33 remaining in the third period.
“I want them to make good plays,” explained Maurice. “I want them to be creative. The tying goal — I’ll take responsibility for that. I’m trying to instill a certain confidence in our back end to make plays with the puck, not be banging the thing off the glass all night. That’s part of the teaching progression that we’re at.”
For Maurice, that progression goes hand in hand with having a high level of confidence in his players. He wants them to know it’s OK to make a mistake.
It’s an interesting approach, when you consider that many believed after Noel’s dismissal, his replacement would have to take a tough love approach.
In reality, or so it would appear at the moment, what the players really needed was a break.
“It certainly wasn’t a dominating performance by us, but it shouldn’t be,” said Maurice, letting his team off the hook after blowing a 4-1 lead Saturday. “They’re a pretty good hockey team. Overtime win on a Saturday night against the Leafs — we’ll take ‘er and enjoy every inch of it.”
Players making strides
Right now, the Jets are doing just that. Winnipeg has won five of their last six games including a victory over the Anaheim Ducks Tuesday who, heading into the game, were without a loss in regulation time on home ice (20-0-2).
That’s because Maurice has squeezed out the potential in a number of guys on his roster including young guns Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba.
Ondrej Pavelec has displayed more confidence in his game. The 26-year-old Czech has posted a third of his wins this season since the arrival of Maurice. Heck, even Dustin Byfuglien appeared to be buying into the guy and his systems despite being up front and having his ice time cut.
“That’s been our big thing around here — sticking with the game plan and not getting away from it,” said Byfuglien, Saturday’s overtime hero.
Though the biggest improvement may just be the play of defenceman Mark Stuart. Stuart averaged close to 17 minutes per game with Noel behind the bench, cracking the 20-minute mark just once in 34 games. He was also a minus-2 during that stretch.
Under Maurice, the picture is much different. Stuart has broke 20 minutes in four of the last six games and is a plus-5. In Saturday’s game, he logged 21:37 of ice time and was tied for a team-high with 5:13 of time of the penalty kill.
“He played well tonight, but he’s played quietly really well,” opined Maurice. “Some of the things we’re trying to do in our end of the ice really helps him, allows him to be really aggressive. He’s got some explosive gap closing ability, and when he gets there, he goes to finish and hit hard. We’re trying to put him in a position to do that, and he’s really excelled.”
Paying the price
Playing alongside rookie Jacob Trouba, together they’ve proven they can shut down some of the most skilled players in the National Hockey League. But what Stuart also brings is the reputation of being a team first guy — willing to pay the price night in and night out.
“He’s got my back, and he’s got everyone’s back on this team,” said Trouba. “Everyone in this locker room knows that and that’s just the kind of guy he is.
“He’ll block shots, and he’ll do anything for his teammates. I’m pretty proud to play with a guy of that caliber and [have him] be my partner.”
Maurice and the Jets will face their toughest test yet as they get set to take on the reigning 2013 Stanley Cup Champions, the Chicago Blackhawks Sunday night at the United Center. Winnipeg hasn’t had much luck against the Hawks seasons as they’ve dropped all three games against Chicago this year by a combined score of 15-5.
First star – Bryan Little, WPG
The first line centre matched up well with Toronto’s top line. Little finished the game with a goal and an assist and was a plus-2 in 20:28 of ice time.
Second star – Blake Wheeler, WPG
He was part of the Jets two goals in the first period including a highlight reel marker that saw the right-winger bust up the left lane before going five-hole on Reimer. Wheeler finished with two points in 17:41 of ice time.
Third star – Morgan Rielly, TOR
At the young age of 19, you can tell why Toronto is so high on this kid. Smooth skater, moves the puck well and plays hard in the corners. Rielly finished with an assist and was a plus-2 in 18:46 of ice time.