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The defence rests

After early improvement under new coach, Jets are again struggling to keep the puck out of their own net

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The Jets had a vastly improved defensive record immediately after head coach Paul Maurice was first hired, but those numbers have slipped recently.

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The Jets had a vastly improved defensive record immediately after head coach Paul Maurice was first hired, but those numbers have slipped recently.

San Jose -- It's kind of like walking before you run in the NHL and all the best teams do it. They defend first and then turn their focus to scoring. It's the foundation most championship teams are now built upon.

The Winnipeg Jets must make this step as individuals and as a team -- finding that mix where defending is second nature and flows naturally into offence. It's been a work in progress for a long time and to the extent Paul Maurice gets the Jets to accomplish improvement in this area, it will distinguish his time with the organization as a success or failure.

The first thing Maurice wanted to improve when he took over the Jets was their goals-against and for a while he did. But the Jets have slipped in that area -- 35 goals against in their last 11 games -- and not only will they not be a playoff team this season but questions have to be asked whether they can move forward as they are currently constructed.

Goaltending is one area that must be assessed but both the defence corps and forwards are also up for review.

After opening the Maurice era with a run that saw the team win 11 of 15 games and climb back into the playoff race, the Jets have faded and are now seven points out of a wild-card berth with just nine games left. It's all over but the math.

All three seasons since the Jets' return to Winnipeg will have ended without playoff qualification. While progress as an organization has been made, the NHL roster, at least at its core, has been largely untouched and ultimately unsuccessful.

Can the Jets reach their goals supplementing this group with young players drafted and developed by GM Kevin Cheveldayoff or is it time for some trading and tweaking through free agency? A little from all these areas is likely closest to the best solution.

The key to the early success under Maurice was a vastly reduced goals-against average and even after the poor results over the last 11 games the Jets are still almost a half goal per game better under the new coach than they were under previous coach Claude Noel.

Interestingly, the Jets have continued to allow a similar number of shots against per game. Under Noel their average was 30.7 and with Maurice it has slightly improved to 29.7.

The big improvement under Maurice was the early play of goalie Ondrej Pavelec, who saw his save percentage increase to .913 from .898 and his goals-against average drop to 2.62 from 3.14.

But Pavelec began to struggle before suffering an injury that has seen career backup Al Montoya start five straight games, and the Jets' goals-against has been on the rise.

Maurice says the defensive slide is both a function of his goalies not making enough saves and a change in his team's tactical approach.

"The first phase was all about defence but I don't think with our group you can focus on just one part of the game. We're not only going to focus on our defensive play so lately we've worked a lot on our offensive-zone play and it's gotten a lot better," said Maurice. "We've had stretches in games when we've been on the puck and creating more offence. It's not just the number of chances against we're allowing now but the kind of chances against. You're seeing more rush chances. Not as much from turnovers in the neutral zone but end to end from guys flying the zone and it's a function of us trying to find how hard to push offensively and when to cut it off. Keep the high man and not pressure down on the puck. We're working on that. And part of it, you know, we need more saves. That's the fact. And it's both goalies. We're giving up more in the net."

Part of Maurice's job at this point, with a young team still learning, is to shelter them and worry about the long-term focus. But it's beginning to feel a lot like it's time for the process to spit out better results. The coach says his team is actually playing better even if the wins have stopped coming.

"I know it's a hard sell to Jets fans right now but the quality of our game is better now. The difference from the first 10 to the last 10 games is we're playing better. You see sections of the game now where we do have offensive zone control," said Maurice. "We're playing a better game in a lot of areas. Yeah, we're giving up more but we're getting more. We're getting more chances and we're not giving up chances in the manner we have in the past. I coached against Atlanta a lot in the past and some of that game was still here when I arrived."

Maybe another season under Maurice, if he determines he's returning once this campaign wraps up, will see this group put it all together and begin to consistently defend at a level that results in wins.

But more likely, Maurice's coaching will need to be aided by some roster change. Finding elite NHL goaltending isn't easy and most teams once they have it hold on for dear life. The answer isn't as simple as going out and finding the next Henrik Lundqvist.

The Jets need a combination of a deeper blue-line, a consistent bottom-six forward group that can help on a nightly basis, and finally reliable goaltending.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 26, 2014 C1

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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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