ST. LOUIS — Paul Maurice has been head coach of the Winnipeg Jets for a little more than a year now, and his role has gone from “we’ll see how it goes,” to being a vocal member of the "I Love Winnipeg" club.

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ST. LOUIS — Paul Maurice has been head coach of the Winnipeg Jets for a little more than a year now, and his role has gone from "we’ll see how it goes," to being a vocal member of the "I Love Winnipeg" club.

Maurice has purchased a home in Winnipeg and moved his family here. And he’s transformed the hockey team from one of the easiest to play in the NHL into a far more difficult challenge for the oppostion.

Winnipeg Jets  head coach Paul Maurice

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice

The Jets are stingy and they are physical. They don’t offer up a lot in terms of scoring chances and they rank eighth in the NHL in hits per game.

Maurice speaks to the media on a daily basis but it’s usually in the hallway of an arena or in a meeting room before, or just after, a game. It’s mostly the day-to-day stuff and not the forum for the coach to be expansive.

On Sunday afternoon, he agreed to an interview in his hotel suite in St. Louis with Andrew Paterson and me for TSN 1290’s Hustler and Lawless program. Here are some highlights from the discussion.

 

H and L: Do these games feel like playoff games?

Maurice: There’s more pressure in these games than the playoffs for a lot of teams. There’s going to be four or five Stanley Cup contenders that have been contenders since last August. Those teams feel the pressure when they get into April; because they feel like they have something to lose or that their window is closing. Playoff games for everybody else is all excitement. Right now is where the pressure of the NHL season is at its greatest because every game is so important. Handling that pressure as well as the wins and losses that each team is going to go through is the key piece.

 

H and L: This city hasn’t had a playoff game in a long time. How do you keep that extra weight off the players?

Maurice: Focus on the day to day, I guess. It’s not easy. Part of it is that we want that for the fans. We want to make the playoffs selfishly, for ourselves. Just the accomplishment and the opportunity to win. We appreciate the building being full every night. We appreciate the fans and the support that we get. It’s unique. It’s such a small town and we want it for them.

 

H and L: Have the injuries and adversity the team has gone through helped you prepare for this crucial stretch?

Maurice: Oh, for sure. I’m not sure if I’ve yet this year been this honest in how I’m going to answer that statement. We had four D go down. I thought we were in some serious trouble. I’ve never seen that. We play San Jose and we lose that game with seven seconds left on the clock and you’re just livid and it bothers you for two weeks. You look back and say, "We have five defencemen out of our lineup," and that day it was still 2-2 at that point of the game was a testament as to how good the players were trying.

So we really do get to draw on that now... So, we’re beat up again, but now it doesn’t feel as noticeable. We don’t survive any of this if management doesn’t bring players in and the timing of that was so critical. So our D go down, Chiarot goes in, Byfuglien goes to the back and we add Harrison and that really helped us survive. And regardless of how it happened with Evander Kane, we lost a forward to injury there. And then replace him with the Stafford and Myers deal. Tyler’s been fantastic, Drew just keeps getting big points — he seems to be one of those big point guys. He’s not getting the seventh assist and the seventh goal; he’s making real impact on the games. So we survived our injuries because we have the right kind of guys in the room. I think in some parts, they like that challenge. They enjoy it a little bit. We want those guys in the lineup and in that room.

 

H and L: Is there any danger in the club and players watching the scoreboard and seeing what other teams are doing? Do you say anything to your team about this?

Maurice: No. There’s a simple way to sort this out. We’ve got 78 points. That’s not enough to get you into the playoffs. I don’t know what that number exactly is going to be this year, I know 78 is not enough. Then you don’t have to worry about it anymore. When you get enough, you’ll know it and you can move on to something else. We watch the scoreboard, of course, I’m watching five games a night at a time when it gets down to the last five minutes and I know what the scores were and how they won. I don’t think there’s anyone in the NHL who has enough.

 

H and L: How has everything worked out for your family?

Maurice: It has been an absolutely fantastic move. We had a decision to make and I didn’t go into great detail about it, but the point is that I told my family I wasn’t moving. I came to Winnipeg and I wanted to make sure it was going to be a really good fit for me and then I would believe that it was going to be a good fit for my family. But even then you don’t know. You can’t know until you get there, so we loaded up the van and it has been brilliant. The kids love it and at the end of the day, the people that we’ve met from the time that we got here… I’ve got a daughter who goes to St. Mary’s and plays on the high school hockey team. There’s too many great people to mention, but Larry Bumstead is the coach of the prep team, he does a fantastic job helping my daughter get into the hockey program.

The people in Winnipeg are brilliant and it’s a great place to live. We don’t mind the cold and I live in a rink so I should be used to it. As good as the hockey has been, and I love coaching this team, the personal side of the move was even better.

 

H and L: Has this been a good a fit for you in comparison to other jobs and cities you’ve previously experienced?

Maurice: Yea, and that’s for a bunch of different reasons. I got a job and I got a contract, so when I say nice things of the owner and the GM, I’m not looking for an extension. The people in the organization make it right. I felt it for the first time when I walked in the room that I understood the kind of players that we had and that we got along and I like them. I like them as people and the way they work and the way they fight through and solve their problems.

One of the key pieces has been the relationship with Mark Chipman, Kevin Cheveldayoff and the whole management staff. The conversation that I had with Kevin on the Saturday before I was hired, we spoke of the direction of where the team has to go, and it has been word for word exactly what has happened. He also gave a couple of scenarios because if we had got to Winnipeg last year and it hadn’t gone well, he was moving a lot of pieces out and getting young. But if we could make some strides and figure out what we had we’d be more selective, but we weren’t going to be adding a ton. It’s all the things he had said that has made it really easy to operate under... We had talked about making the playoffs earlier and we talked about how great it would be to the fans. I feel that and it’s not pressure, but hope for Mark Chipman because he wants that so badly for the fans. It’s not a moneymaker, it’s about giving back to the community. He puts so much effort into it, they work so hard to make this a viable team. In a smaller market they have done a great job with it.

So I feel like I fit here. With the people that I work with, I feel I fit in the room. My job is no different than anyone else’s. Male or female who work a lot of hours, we have to work, and it has to be done right or we don’t work anymore. So that has to be a priority in what we do. My job’s a little unusual because I work everyday, and then the summer comes and I get some time off.

 

H and L: Are you satisfied with where this team is compared to when you initially took the job?

Maurice: The answer has got to be yes, I think. You have to be careful with the word ‘satisfied.’ I’m pleased with the amount of ground that we’ve covered. But, here’s the thing, the first pieces of this, getting from poor to good, is the easiest part and the quickest handled. There’s structure, discipline, get the right pieces in place, get good goaltending, and you can be in the middle to the pack. The grind now to ascend that ladder to get into the Top 10 on a yearly basis, that’s really hard. It takes a tremendous amount of focus and determination from the players but it also means that those guys have to develop. They have to get better than they are. Our young players are good, but they’re going to have to get better. When I say I’m satisfied, I like the sense of belief the players have in each other and how they want to play.

I’m not fighting these guys at all to play hard. I don’t know if I’ve ever coached a team where I worried less about coming to the rink, about how they’re coming out of the gate that night, what kind of lather they’d be in, because they’ve worked at being good at that. I’m satisfied because I know the difference between where we’re at and I don’t necessarily want to pick a team because I think this team can beat anybody. But, Getzlafs of the world, we have to develop some people into those kinds of roles. We’re going to be a hard working team, but we’re going to need some guys to develop into that.

 

H and L: Seeing the guys work so hard and doing what you wanted and even more, that must have set the season off on a good foot?

Maurice: It did, more so for them. You know the commitment it takes for these guys to get in great shape. They spend an awful amount of hours in the summer. When you walk into that room, and somebody doesn’t, it stands out. That’s the first place you build trust is how hard you train, how much effort you put into it. You don’t have to be in great shape, you have to be in better shape than you were last year. We had a few guys who didn’t, and it was really noticeable on the ice and they didn’t make the hockey team. You want to get to a point where you believe your fitness is high and that during the season you’re trying to maintain that and it’s always a good thing as a coach, when I’m trying to monitor rest and when I’m more worried about getting them rest and recovery and then we’re in pretty good shape. You’ll find that your young players come into an environment like that, where the players are all fit, it changes the path of their career. The young players know they won’t make the team if they’re not in shape, and they don’t want to embarrass themselves in front of the captain. So when you go into a team that is not fit, you put yourself two or three years behind. Ladd’s a fit guy. His durability has been fantastic. Stuart and Wheeler just drive it every single day, and it’s really great for your kids.

 

H and L: In your eyes, why is Mark Stuart a good player?

Maurice: He does a number of things to affect the course of games. Mark Stuart is not going to score a lot and he’s got some decent numbers this year, he got one in early this year. He affects the way the game is played against our team and affects the way we play. So it’s not always about the puck. And how you sit on the bench, what gets taken care of in front of the net. Building the identity of the team doesn’t come up as an analytic. That, and his leadership and fitness level. [Fitness] this is not the defining reason that I put players on the ice. He loves being a Jet and it comes out in everything he does. So we’re building that identity and in some ways, almost as that as a first, you kind of have to want to be in Winnipeg. It’s not New York City, but there’s a lot of great things about Winnipeg for you to love being in that room and to be a great teammate. You gotta be happy where you are. There are going to be some guys who think the grass is greener on the other side. Everybody’s got a guy or two who thinks they can play somewhere else and get more ice time. But Mark is committed to this group and I think he does an awful lot for us.

 

H and L: What can this playoff race, and hopeful playoff experience, do for this group going forward beyond this season?

Maurice: They’re going to remember this for the rest of their careers because they’re going to be in one exactly like this, hopefully for the rest of their careers.

 

H and L: How to integrate the young guys… where do you see this team going and how it’s going to play in the next four to five years?

Maurice: I think the core of what we have is really strong and we’ll just look at our back end. So, lets just put a bunch of qualifiers on it. All the people that we want to sign, gets signed and if they don’t we move out, but our back end is very strong and we have some good and young prospects coming in that don’t necessarily need to be in the NHL next year. I’m not talking about Morrissey, but there are a bunch of other guys that were at training camp that I like. So Ben Chiarot would be the perfect model. Come in at 23, get into the lineup not on five minutes, go play your 15 or 20 minutes and if you can handle that, you’re in the NHL. So that’s what we’d like to see. We’ve all seen organizations like Detroit use that model and develop their young players there. There are some young players that are too dynamic. They’re just so much better necessarily. If you can put them [forwards] in a third line, I think that’s ideal. You can’t have a young player on your fourth line. If you’ve got young players playing in your top six, if you do that you’re probably a little bit thin. If you need to put them there. Lowry and Scheifele will go in different directions in terms of style of play. But as deep as we are on the blue line, and that’s a source of strength for us. I’m so excited that you know that you’ve got those two kids in your organization for a long time. And they’re good men. Mark’s numbers are better than they were last year, so it’s a career year at his second year. But his progress and his point development, and I may be wrong, is going to be pretty gradual. He’s going to work that way up.

Adam Lowry’s never going to be judged necessarily by the points, I think he’s going to score more than what people think. But he’ll go from the young man that he is now to being one of those shut-down guys that you hate playing against.

There’s some good strength. Two talented wingers, in my mind, are Petan and Ehlers and certainly others. The fact of the matter is that I don’t see these kids play.

What they do in their minor program isn’t a major concern for me, because we’re going to get a chance to work with them and fit them in to what we do. But, my understanding is that we have really good young players and I hope they have a very difficult time making our team.

 

H and L: If you get into the playoffs, does that mean you’re going to be in for the next five years?

Maurice: Nope. We’ve got to earn that every year. You can make the playoffs this year and miss the next five. You can miss this year and win the Stanley Cup next year. So this is something that people are going to have to get used to. When you look at that Central Division, there also aren’t any old teams. St. Louis has got a good, young and powerful team. We’re good, too. So this is going to be hard physical hockey. It may shorten some players’ careers by a year or two because it’s going to be so hard to play. But instead of waiting for that, and I know fans do and sometimes players do, wouldn’t it be great if our team was so good that we were pretty sure we were going to make the playoffs every year. You may get to that, but very few teams ever really stay in that. For a while, Detroit looked like they were in trouble. Boston hasn’t missed the playoffs very much and they’re fighting for their lives. So what we want to do is say the same thing that we’re saying to our players now, ‘this is the pressure. This is the pressure that you’ve got to learn to like. Deal with it, but not in terms of getting rid of it or coping skills so that you don’t feel the pressure. That doesn’t do you any good. Enjoy. Be on the bench and love what you do for a living. Be excited. Don’t sit and look at the clock hoping it would tick faster. We’ve got to get used to it because this is the way we’re going to live.

 

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @garylawless