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Maurice guarding Pavelec's back

Jets coach convinced goalie can be a star in NHL

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PHILADELPHIA -- Somewhere around a bonfire at a Manitoba cottage the Winnipeg Jets' goaltending woes were discussed Friday night. And in a bar, and over dinner, and between a father and a son on a swing set. It's the hockey subject of the summer and it's everywhere.

It also came up underneath the stands of a hockey rink Friday and one of the men in the discussion was Paul Maurice, who not only has an opinion but some actual say in the matter.

The head coach of the Winnipeg Jets listened to half a question about how long the leash will be on Ondrej Pavelec when the season starts this October before calmly interjecting.

"I have a firm belief he has the ability to be an outstanding No. 1 goaltender. I do. We're going to do everything we can to make that happen. But it's incumbent on every player to make that happen," Maurice said at the Wells Fargo Center. "Every single player has a responsibility to work as hard as he can to make us better. We're going to do everything we can to support Ondrej. But before we get into discussing how much opportunity we're going to give him, I have a firm belief he's capable and I have an expectation which we will demand from him and all our players."

The Jets ranked 22nd in the league last season with a 2.82 goals against per game average. Shrinking that number is key and Maurice will stress this over and over in his pursuit of making the Jets more than an easy mark on the schedule for Western Conference opponents.

Part of his solution for all that ails is the Jets is to create an atmosphere where players love to be part of Winnipeg and wearing the team's jersey. One player Maurice sees as a key in this formula is Dustin Byfuglien.

"He did everything I asked of him. In games and in practice. He's a leader in our room and the one thing I believe about him more than anything else, is he loves to play hockey," said Maurice. "We need players that love to play for the Winnipeg Jets. We have to find a way for that to be part of playing here. Dustin can be a big part of that for us."

Between long rants about Pavelec and his save percentage, Winnipeggers take quick breaths and then jag on the lack of playoff hockey at the MTS Centre since the team's return.

Maurice was questioned about getting his team to the post-season, but shrugged it off as being a bar set too low.

"My job is bigger than getting into the playoffs. Getting into the playoffs is a challenge. And it certainly isn't easy to do in the Western Conference right now. But it can't be the goal. We can't be saying, 'Hey fellas, we're here to make the playoffs this year,' because 16 teams do and we want to get to the point where the conversation is around the fact we're one of the five or eight or however many teams that has a legitimate chance every year," said Maurice. "I'm not saying the playoffs aren't an important goal for this year, but that's not the focus. We start with how we train in the summer, how we work in training camp and then we'll go from there."

Last winter, shortly after Maurice was installed as the Jets interim coach, then-Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford spoke about twice hiring and twice firing Maurice as a coach. Rutherford discussed the circumstances surrounding those situations before stating he'd hire his old coach again if given the chance.

"It would be difficult to do in Carolina, but if I was the manager of another team, the answer would be yes, I would hire Paul again," said Rutherford.

After resigning in Carolina this spring, Rutherford was subsequently named GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins and just this week hired Mike Johnston as his coach.

No offence to Johnston, but were Maurice on the market it's hard to imagine Rutherford not seeing an opportunity to hook up one more time.

Maurice took his time before agreeing to a four-year deal with the Jets after the team's season officially ended. What would have happened if he had waited longer? Could he now be the coach of a team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the roster?

Maurice wasn't interested in hypotheticals.

"Winnipeg is absolutely the right place for me to be. I felt that the day I walked into that room," he said. "Part of being a coach is you have to fit. And I think I fit here."

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 28, 2014 C3

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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