IF anyone was wondering whether Paul Maurice hopes to stick around next season, well, the Jets head coach left little doubt of his intentions.
Asked Friday if the challenge appeals to him, he was emphatic. "Absolutely," he said.
"You want a chance to get in on that ground floor, and have a little experience when you do that, so it's not a matter of just grinding them into the ice next year to make a point that you're a tough coach.
"Developing relationships with these players at a young age, where you can have an impact and a bit of a mentorship, that's exciting."
Maurice's contract is set to wrap up after this season, an arrangement he and TNSE agreed on when they brought him in to replace Claude Noel in January.
When he took the gig, Maurice was doubtless hoping for a playoff finish. After a hot start under Maurice, the Jets trailed off. They sat 12-11-5 under his watch after Thursday's loss to the Penguins. "It's an exceptionally empty feeling, when you wake up and it's over for you," he said.
But Maurice noted a lot of positives about his short tenure with the Jets, too, saying he thought the team was in better shape than when he arrived. Still, he understands fans' ire when wins fail to materialize.
"Being patient and building through the draft, and developing your young players, is a great thing to say in the summertime," he said. "It's a painful thing to say right here today.
"But we've got a young defenceman who played 24 minutes a night probably on average, that learned so much. He doesn't play that on an older, more veteran team... the decision's been made to make those kids play, and to live with that. I feel our next step is into that middle of the pack, that's where we want to drive our team to, and we want to get there as fast as we can."
So while personnel change may be inevitable, Maurice said, he also expects to see more growth from the players he has.
"I still think we're capable of playing a better brand of hockey with every single person that is in that room," he said. "So if those are the faces that we have next year, I have a higher expectation of our result."
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Meanwhile, the coach was in a lighthearted mood when it came to his latest battle wound, a swollen gash on his forehead caused by an errant puck in Thursday's game. Though the cut did not require stitches, the rubber certainly made its mark.
"At one point, I saw five Sidney Crosbys on the ice," Maurice said. "Which would be great if I was Dan Bylsma, but not so much if you're on the other bench."
So, did he get an apology from Jets winger Michael Frolik, who shot the puck that ricocheted into his own coach's head?
"No," Maurice said, with a twinkle in his eye. "Listen, I couldn't put Olli (Jokinen) on the ice the next shift, because he was laughing too hard. As long as you're not hurt bad, there's nothing players love more than seeing a coach go down."
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Though playoffs are out of the question, at least Jokinen has a little acknowledgment to remember his stout bounce-back season.
On Friday, the veteran forward was announced as the Jets' nominee for the 2014 Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, as selected by the local members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association. The award is handed out every year to a player who best exemplifies qualities of perseverance, dedication and sportsmanship.
In Jokinen's case, the nomination recognizes how the 35-year-old bounced back from a dismal 2012-13 season, to score 17 goals and 41 points while playing in all 78 games so far this year.
The only real difference: No lockout, which saw Jokinen go nine months without playing.
"It was tough for a lot of the older guys," he said.
This time around, he made it a goal to get his game back to where it needed to be.
On that end, Jokinen said, he came "close," though stats don't matter so much if you aren't still playing hockey in the spring. "We're all disappointed here not to get in the post-season," he said. "Our goal was getting in post-season. Now we're outside, again, and it just wasn't good enough this year."