The Winnipeg Jets returned to the rink Wednesday for all the wrong reasons.
Had they pumped in the winning goal in overtime Monday in Montreal instead of allowing one and then shaking hands with the jubilant Habs afterward, the revitalized Jets would have hosted Game 5 of the North Division final at their downtown home.
Instead, they met for the final time for exit interviews with coaches and management, then held their season-ending media availability followed by the dreary exercise of clearing out their lockers.
Fifteen players were made available and all spoke candidly about the tumultuous 2021 NHL campaign. They faced questions about the effectiveness of the Jets coaching staff, the importance of keeping the nucleus of the squad intact and the inevitability of bidding treasured teammates farewell.
The following is a synopsis of some of the key areas of discussion. Keep in mind it comes from the players' mouths only, as head coach Paul Maurice and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff face the music later in the week.
1. How do you explain the many peaks and valleys of this season?
There's no question it was a season like no other. From divisional re-alignment required by the ongoing border closure, playing in empty rinks due to the pandemic and seeing only six different opponents over a 56-game schedule, there were plenty of firsts. And, hopefully, lasts.
The Jets rode a roller-coaster, including a seven-game slide near the end of the season, a first-round sweep of Edmonton and then a second-round sweep at the hands of Montreal. Several players believe those extremes were a product of the unique environment.
"I think playing the same teams was a big part of it. If you go a long stretch against teams that were playoff teams, they’re obviously there for a reason as they’re one of the better ones in the division, and there’s a chance that they could run a streak. We ran a couple streaks on some teams too. Not having fans definitely stung," said goalie Connor Hellebuyck.
Jets captain Blake Wheeler said getting to come to the rink every day provided a little light in a period with plenty of darkness, one that players recognized was important to fans forced to view entirely from home. But the lack of connection on many levels made it a real challenge to stay focused.
"I’ve just got to be really careful with how much I come up here and start trying to complain about how hard things were. The truthful answer to your question is yeah, it was by far the hardest year of my professional life, my personal life, everything," he said.
"It’s been all-encompassing. As a team, as players, we knew we could provide entertainment, provide a break for all that for our fanbase. And that was the most exciting thing about the year, kind of the only exciting thing about the year for us that we knew we couldn’t play in front of our fans but that they were watching and at 7 p.m. every night it was something for them to do to kind of break the monotony of the world."
2. Has Paul Maurice's message grown stale?
Maurice doesn’t exactly have an air-tight case if he’s fighting to keep his job as head coach of the Jets. The evidence and simple precedent, in many respects, seem stacked against him.
Yet, if hockey followers in Winnipeg and beyond believe the veteran bench boss has passed his "best-before date" with the NHL club, his players maintain that's simply not the case.
"I've been on teams where coaches have lost the team and the message isn't being received and guys roll their eyes every time he says something, and that's just never happened with Paul," Wheeler said. "His message is still received. The guys have a ton of respect for him because he's, first of all, a good person, a good man, and treats us as people."
Maurice replaced Claude Noel midway through the 2013-14 season and has guided the Jets through 572 regular-season games (302-213-57) and 39 playoff games (16-23). During that time, the squad has won just three rounds (included a trip to the Western Conference Final in 2018) in five post-season appearances.
Only Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper has more longevity behind the bench, and he shepherded his squad to a Stanley Cup title in 2020.
"He’s been the coach since I came in. It’s very unusual, even in Europe, to have the same coach for that long. But it just shows what kind of coach and what kind of guy Paul is. I think everyone on the team is very happy with the way he coaches us and, not just the on ice stuff but the off-ice too," said forward Nikolaj Ehlers.
"He’s a guy you can go talk to when something’s up. There’s always something with the on-ice stuff that he’s got for you, whether it’s good or bad."
Maurice signed a multi-year contract extension in mid-February 2020, although the terms were never disclosed. It’s believed he’s locked up until after the upcoming 2021-22 campaign.
Assistant-coach Charlie Huddy has been employed with the Jets since the team arrived from Atlanta, as has goalie coach Wade Flaherty. Associate coach Jamie Kompon came aboard in 2016, while former NHL player and coach Dave Lowry — father of Jets centre Adam Lowry — was added to the staff this year, replacing Todd Woodcroft who is now coaching U.S. college hockey.
Centre Nate Thompson played just one season under Maurice but developed a kinship with his coach almost immediately.
"For me, as soon as I got here, there was an open line of communication right away. I knew what to expect. I have a great relationship with Paul. It started right from the beginning. I think every guy on the team would say the same thing. He has a true belief in our team and he did from the start. He made that clear right away from day one of training camp," said Thompson, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent.
"Even though the good times and even when we were struggling, he still had that belief in us. I think every guy knows that. That’s why you’ll see, I think you’re going to see a good response from this group next year."
3. What lessons can be learned from a season such as this?
Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, right? Players spoke of several ways this season can ultimately make them stronger.
"The way we played coming out of that seven-game losing streak we had, how we came out of that and learned from our game… I thought we came out of that just more of a well-rounded team. We were playing the right way, we knew what it took," said forward Kyle Connor.
"When you go through a type of stretch like that — I don’t know if I’ve ever been a part of that in my career, seven-straight — it’s tough, but you learn to enjoy the wins more too. It’s simple and dumb to say, it’s so much more exciting. We just found that every little play is almost like the playoffs. Someone blocked a shot and we got great energy on the bench coming up. So, I think we just used that and implemented that into our game for a little more sense of camaraderie as a team and on the bench."
Despite the disappointing way it ended, Jets alternate captain Josh Morrissey believes they added another important layer to an increasingly strong foundation.
"I think we took some big steps forward as a team. Especially dealing with some adversity in a tough season and tough schedule and (I'm) proud of the way we rebounded late in the season with, you know, a pretty tough losing streak in a sort of a grim time in our season. We found a way to rebound from that and play some really good hockey, I think, that those are some lessons that we can keep with us here, going into next season and build off of in the future," said Morrissey.
NHL history is filled with examples of teams that sometimes took a step forward, followed by a step or two back, before finally getting over the hump. Forward Andrew Copp said learning how to win doesn't always happen in a straight line.
"You learn a lot during the course of a season, learn a lot about your team and teammates and you learn a lot about yourself. I think it’s just another year of experience, of figuring out what it takes to win, said Copp. "Another year of figuring out what makes your individual game successful, what helps you in the summer, what you need to do to put yourself in a position for success. You learn a lot about things not to do as well."
4. What kind of roster turnover might be coming?
All pro sports organizations alter their rosters during the off-season — by way of free agency, trades and promotions and demotions — and it's inevitable that elements of Winnipeg's group will change.
For some parts, it's an absolute necessity. So, the melancholy surrounding the club Wednesday wasn't just because the season came to a screeching halt, but also because co-workers were parting ways.
"It’s hard. That’s the worst part of the job, the revolving door, the teammates you build a strong bond with and guys you really rely on, guys you really enjoyed being around and they’re not around any more. So that’s the hard part of the job," said Wheeler. "The best part of the job, though, is that you still talk to a lot of those guys. Even after our last games, the amount of former teammates the reached out, it’s great. You make a lot of life-long friends in this business, which is pretty unique."
The Jets have Hellebuyck, one of the league's top netminders, under lock and key for another three seasons, with a cap hit at just a shade below US$6.2 million. Talk about a rock-solid foundation. Uber-reliable back-up Laurent Brossoit is an unrestricted free agent and might just shop himself to other squads as a potential starter.
Up front, Winnipeg has the majority of its offensive drivers under contract, including centre Mark Scheifele, Wheeler, speedy scoring wingers Connor and Ehlers, and Lowry. Pierre-Luc Dubois, acquired in the deal that sent fan-favourite Patrik Laine to Columbus, is still a year from restricted free agency and remains a massive part of the core despite a mediocre start to his tenure as a Jet.
But Copp needs a new contract and, after a career season (15G, 24A) will be looking for a raise from his current US$2.28 million deal, an amount awarded to him by an arbitrator.
"I don’t think anything is really off the table at this point. Those are the conversations, where they see me moving forward here, the direction of the team, what we’re gonna do to make us better. Those are the biggest things for me," said the Michigan product. "I’m sure with everything happening sooner rather than later that will get done and addressed pretty quickly.
"You want to be important, not only on the ice and to the team but off the ice, in the room, leadership and all that stuff. I feel like, over the last two years, I’ve really taken steps from where I was. I’m happy with my development over the course of the last two years and I think I still have levels to get to."
Defenceman Neal Pionk was somewhat of an unknown commodity when he came over in the trade that sent Jacob Trouba to the New York Rangers in 2019, but he has posted two sensational seasons and has become invaluable to a team in desperate need of stability on the back end. He's an RFA after earning US$3 million annually the last two seasons but sounds like a guy who has no interest in moving on.
"I really like the motivation of this core. You look at our best players, and I think they’re the hardest working guys on the team. They’re the first guys in the rink, the first ones on the ice, the last ones off the ice kind of thing," Pionk said. "That motivation alone, along with the skill and talent that we have as a core, I think is really exciting for the future."
Noticeably absent from the large pool of speakers Wednesday was Mathieu Perreault, now heading to unrestricted free agency after four years at US$4.125 million per season. While he's been a loyal, hard-working forward in Winnipeg since 2014, expect the club to move on.
The same will likely be said for dependable foot soldiers Thompson and Trevor Lewis. The Jets have David Gustafsson as the heir apparent at the bottom-six centre position, and there's loads of excitement around 2020 10th overall draft pick Cole Perfetti. Kristian Vesalainen and Jansen Harkins will also push for larger roles next season.
But with the expansion draft looming, things get tricky. All NHL teams (with the exception of the Vegas Golden Knights) will be analyzing their rosters to figure out who to protect and who to expose to the Seattle Kraken.
Expect Cheveldayoff and his staff to shield seven forwards, three blue-liners and a goaltender. Forwards likely safe from Seattle GM Ron Francis's grasp are Scheifele, Wheeler, Connor, Ehlers, Dubois, Lowry and Copp (once he's signed). That leaves Mason Appleton and Harkins as the most likely to be left available.
On defence, the Jets will absolutely protect Pionk and Morrissey (NMC), with a major decision to be made in terms of either the steady Dylan DeMelo — who still has three years left at an affordable US$3 million annual price tag — or surprisingly impressive rookie Logan Stanley, who brings obvious size and strength, and good defensive smarts. He's gone from potential first round bust to a big part of the future, a towering presence who can shoot with accuracy and adds a mean streak. It would be a shame to lose him.
"You lay it all on the line with guys, you form a bond with the guys that will kind of meet you half-way and lay it on the line with you, you form a lot of really good friendships," Wheeler said of Wednesday's gathering.
"It’s more like a we’ll see you later than a goodbye kind of thing, because you’re likely to play against them or just see them."
Assistant sports editor
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