The Winnipeg Jets’ season came to a surprising halt after being swept by the Montreal Canadiens in Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Players like Mark Scheifele (who was suspended for four games for charging Jake Evans) are being pointed at as the ones to blame, but the Jets’ coach Paul Maurice has also taken a lot of heat.
Yesterday, Maurice spoke to the media to close out the season and answer questions about what’s to come for the Jets, what went wrong, where they need to improve, and more. Here are some highlights from his final media press conference of the season.
Coming of Age Core
Throughout the press conference, Maurice spoke highly about his team’s drive and the efforts of each player working towards becoming the best version of themselves this season. He believes in the core to take this team to the next level explaining, “We’ve got a good, strong, coming of age core. There’s still some work to do for sure… I think this is the first group of guys that we’ve had that were kinda completely committed to Winnipeg, to the Jets.”
With players like Kyle Connor who earned three goals and four assists in the playoffs and 50 points in the regular season, Josh Morrissey, Scheifele, and the Jets’ captain Blake Wheeler in the lineup, Maurice has faith in his core and the future of his team.
Maurice said his young players have reached an age “where they started asking, ‘what can I do to help us win?’” Once you have a strong core combined with rookies whose main objective is earning success for themselves and their teammates, that’s when you start winning.
The Jets might not have as big of a draw as the Colorado Avalanche, but Maurice believes the next stage for his roster involves becoming a team that the media roots for. “I don’t think we were quite there [in our prime] this year. I don’t think that was the sense going in, but you’re going to get a little stronger in all areas, a little more mature in more areas and then you start being thought of as one of those teams.” The Jets have the potential to become a real force in the NHL, it’s just a matter of time before their roster reaches its prime.
Maurice Credits Coaching Staff for Positive Culture in Locker Room
The Jets struggled at the end of the regular season only winning three of their last 12 games and after being swept by the Canadiens, many were left wondering if this was the last straw for Maurice’s coaching career. Despite all the noise surrounding his “shelf life,” he spoke confidently about the coaching efforts on the Jets staff being a key factor in how “tightly-knit” his team is and for the positive culture in the locker room.
“I understand in my job you’re always gonna have your critics and that’s a beautiful part of pro sports, it’s the passion of the game, but I’m really proud of the job I did and the staff did this year under incredibly trying circumstances.” He continued, “The room right now, the culture in our room right now, is as good as it’s been since I’ve been here… I think we have more players invested in Winnipeg now than we ever had.”
Schiefele wasn’t a fan-favourite in the Jets/Habs playoff series after Game 1, but nevertheless Maurice used the alternate captain as an example of a player who’s strongly connected to Winnipeg and the Jets’ franchise.
“It’s small things — Mark Sheifele buying a house — it’s all those kind of connections that we need to have in Winnipeg because maybe we’re not like some other major markets that can draw players or not have us on their no-trade list. All those things that we compete with. So, our draw has to be our room and the culture of our room and the togetherness of these guys.” Even though the togetherness of the Jets couldn’t earn them a Round 2 win this season, let alone a Stanley Cup, Maurice’s faith in his players is still strong.
Shutting Down Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid
“Overachieved” was the term Maurice used when he touched on his team’s ability to shutdown what is arguably the deadliest duo in the NHL.
When facing the Edmonton Oilers, the Jets held Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid to an empty score sheet in the first two games of the series. The two combined for nine points in Games 3 and 4, but it wasn’t enough to grant the Oilers the series win, let alone a win, as the Jets completed their series sweep.
“I think being able to shut [down] the [number] one, [and] two guys in the National Hockey League is pretty darn impressive,” said Maurice. “We weren’t running a bunch of Norris guys against them, we were running a bunch of guys who had to work, and give, everything on every shift.”
The Jets’ coach praised his defensemen for their play in Round 1. “…they [the Jets’ defense] were able to play to their prime plus in that series. I think that back end… reached their capacity of capability in that series and it was awesome to watch.”
Maurice couldn’t help but take some pride in the way he saw his players support each other on the ice and from the bench. “I really enjoyed just watching from the bench, how that bench matured and cheered guys on and just supported and covered over when there was a mistake. That was a fun series from a coach’s point of view.”
Connor Hellebuyck Covering Up Jets’ Errors
The Jets’ defense may have been the storyline in Round 1, but not in Round 2 as the team went on to lose four in a row against the Habs. Instead, Connor Hellebuyck was the shining star.
The 2020 Vezina Trophy winner had a .931 save percentage (SV%) in the playoffs, allowing for a goals-against average (GAA) of 2.23. Hellebuyck looked steady throughout the playoffs, but the pressure of the Jets’ on-ice efforts were no match for the Canadiens’ defense in the series.
Many people were speculating the Jets’ goalie may have been masking a lot of the team’s mistakes simply because of how excellent he was playing. When asked about this being the case, Maurice agreed, saying, “Connor Hellebuyck’s on our team. We drafted him. Whoever drafted him, well done. We developed him and he does mask a lot of the challenges that we’ve had especially in the last two years, for sure. And we’re going to try to address that and fix that and move forward in how we play.”
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He goes on to describe the structure of his team, “Our forward group is maturing into a really good forward group. Our back end has to catch up to… our goaltending, but not everybody has all the pieces all the time. So, we’re in [the] process of building that.”
Goaltending is key to success, but you can’t win a Stanley Cup if you don’t have a team that’s strong in all areas, including defense. We can expect to see efforts from Maurice and his players next season to improve on their back end.
Hope For A Fan-Filled 2021-22 Season
Enduring a hockey season with no fans was one for the books. Players had no choice but to stay motivated and engaged in the game with no one to cheer them on. They missed having fans by their side at home and would do anything to hear the boo’s coming from the stands of an arena on the road.
Maurice assures the media that the struggles of the pandemic actually brought his team closer together, and it forced players to ask themselves, “why do you do all this?” Being torn apart by the media is brutal when you don’t have the fans by your side to remind you of why you play in the first place, but his players proved they truly care about the sport and won’t quit, even if it means playing in an eerily quiet, empty arena.
Let’s hope the Jets’ 2021-22 season is accessorized with packed arenas because in the wise words of Maurice, “The game’s no fun without fans. It’s no fun at all.”
Courtney is a 22-year-old recent graduate from the University of Western Ontario, earning her Honors Bachelors of Arts degree in Media Information and Technoculture and will be completing her Master of Media in Journalism and Communication beginning in September 2021. She combines her longtime love for hockey, journalism, and sports media as she covers the Winnipeg Jets and Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers.