It wasn't quite Babe Ruth pointing to centre field and famously calling his shot. But Paul Maurice sure looked and sounded like a confident coach as he spoke for the first time Thursday about a re-tooled Winnipeg Jets roster many believe can compete for a Stanley Cup this coming season.
"This will be, I would say, the best balanced lineup we've had," the veteran bench boss boasted as he met with media at Bell MTS Iceplex. "I think there’s a balance there now that we haven’t had that we can do a whole bunch of different things on the ice that we haven’t done before."
"This will be, I would say, the best balanced lineup we've had." — Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice
Top-pairing defencemen Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon have been added to the mix, giving Winnipeg the kind of versatile blue-line not seen around these parts since a magical 2018 run to the Western Conference Final with the likes of Dustin Byfuglien, Toby Enstrom, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot holding down the fort. The difference between now and then, according to Maurice, is their young goalie has grown into a Vezina Trophy winner, and their young forward core has matured into one of the NHL's deepest and most talented.
He admitted that with great power will come great responsibility — along with a healthy dose of heightened expectations now they seemingly have all the necessary tools in place while coming perilously close to the US $81.5 million salary cap ceiling.
"Priority one is for the Jets to win. At our age group and our payroll, we’ve got to win," said Maurice.
An interesting bit of honesty and insight and even a touch of urgency and desperation in a "never let 'em see you sweat" business, one that speaks to additional pressure on the most tenured coach in the NHL behind two-time champion Jon Cooper in Tampa Bay. This will be Maurice's eighth full season in Winnipeg, and ninth overall.
"Yeah, we’re guaranteed, hey?" he joked. "I don’t know how I feel about that, the pressure. I know that I’m excited to come to the rink. I feel that. I’ve been here a while now and I want to win with this team, in this city especially. So I want to stay as long as I possibly can. I love it here. I also coach for a living and I know how this works. But I don’t feel that. I don’t feel a sense of tension from that end. Given the choice, I would coach this team all day long. I think it’s ideal."
The Jets are coming off a unique 2021 campaign in which they finished third in the all-Canadian division with a 30-23-3 record, swept Edmonton in the first round of the playoffs and then got swept by Montreal in the second round. They're returning to the familiar Central Division this fall, along with a full 82-game regular-season schedule that begins Oct. 13 in Anaheim.
"Priority one is for the Jets to win. At our age group and our payroll, we’ve got to win." — Paul Maurice
"We managed incredibly well over two years with a real extreme set of circumstances," Maurice said of the major overhaul on the back-end. "It could have been devastating. We found good men. I loved the defence corps last year individually. Any one of them. But as a group, there was lots of room for us to get to another level."
Schmidt and Dillon replace Derek Forbort and Tucker Poolman and join the likes of Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Dylan DeMelo and Logan Stanley, along with promising young prospects Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg and depth pieces Nathan Beaulieu and Sami Niku. Training camp, which officially begins next Thursday, will be about finding the proper fit for everyone.
"Both of these guys (Schmidt and Dillon) are well known in the league for style of play, for character, and they’re going to fit into our room," said Maurice. "I’ve got an office down by the door and the players walk by that door every morning. What you want for training camp is the sense of hope when they’re walking by that door, that they’re excited about the people we’ve brought in and where we’re going to. There are a lot of excited players here, coaches too."
Other camp priorities include putting together a new fourth line after veterans Mathieu Perreault, Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis all moved on in free agency, and determining who can take the place of Mason Appleton on the likely third line with Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp. That's where young players such as Jansen Harkins, Kristian Vesalainen, David Gustafsson and Cole Perfetti will all be looking to make an impact, along with more veteran skaters such as Dominic Toninato and free agent signing Riley Nash.
"I love coaching, but you came to realize pretty early on that the fans are a whole big part of why you love the job." — Paul Maurice
"I’ve got lots of faith in the young guys we have for those positions. The question will be does it make more sense to have them here or playing with the Moose?" said Maurice. "Let’s get them through a camp. We play a lot of exhibition games. We play six. But I think I’m going to allocate more games to the kids this year to get a better look at them, then scrimmage more in the camp portion."
The top six is pretty much set in stone, with some combination of Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Blake Wheeler and Paul Stastny.
The 54-year-old Maurice, who is hardly an old dog despite more than two decades behind an NHL bench, admits fans may see some new tricks this season in the form of a more aggressive, puck-moving style of play in all three zones, due mainly to the addition of Schmidt and Dillon. He also changed some of his own off-season habits, including forcing himself to tune out hockey for a stretch this summer rather than living at the office as he typically does. The brain, he said, needed a break after an entire season of playing in empty buildings during a global pandemic.
"I found the whole COVID situation very difficult to manage," said Maurice. "I love coaching, but you came to realize pretty early on that the fans are a whole big part of why you love the job. Home and away. It’s the energy that you get, like on the Tuesday where you’ve just been on the road forever. We stay in nice hotels and I’m not complaining about that. But I just needed to find a place to get some energy. Thankfully the weather was pretty good, other than some minor sharp implement injuries I suffered I had a great summer. And it was a really good idea."
On that front, Maurice's excitement about a fresh new season is also boosted by the fact Canada Life Centre will be open to 100 per cent capacity.
"I cannot articulate the difference between not having people in the stands and what it meant to me — the personal enjoyment I had doing my job, it was just...I know it’s the NHL and I know that people are going to say ‘are you crazy? But this is all about fans," he said.
"So that might be the silver lining in all of this, that the players feel the same way. Even on the road, when you’re getting hooted on, it’s awesome. So let’s fill the places up and hopefully everybody stays up and we can get back to playing hockey."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.