Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice dismissed any notions of grandeur and opted for authenticity when he spoke Friday about the deficiencies of his defence.
The veteran bench boss, it turns out, hadn't fooled himself into believing the NHL team had a suitable crew, after all.
In fact, he went so far as to echo what fans and pundits have been saying for two seasons: Winnipeg's world-class goaltender saved their bacon time and time again.
"We, in the last two years, have been thin on our blue-line, that’s just a fact," Maurice said, during a final Zoom chat with reporters. "Connor Hellebuyck’s on our team, we drafted him... well done. He does mask a lot of the challenges that we’ve had, especially in the last two years, for sure. And we’re going to try address that and fix that in how we play.
"The forward group is maturing into a really good forward group. Our back end has to catch up to our goaltending. But not everybody has all the pieces all the time, so we’re in that process of building that."
It's no secret the Jets remain blessed with top-flight talent up front when the group is healthy, while Hellebuyck won the Vezina Trophy a year ago and continues to be as adept a puck-stopper as they come. However, the back end has been a source of consternation since the great exodus (Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot and Dustin Byfuglien) following the 2018-19 campaign.
Maurice didn't exactly make a public plea for his boss, Kevin Cheveldayoff, to pick up a Norris Trophy candidate while Winnipeg's general manager does his summer shopping.
But he made it clear that despite some yeoman's work from the assemblance of Josh Morrissey, Dylan DeMelo, Neal Pionk, Tucker Poolman, Derek Forbort, Logan Stanley, Nathan Beaulieu (before a season-ending injury) and (trade-deadline acquisition) Jordie Benn, major aid is required.
"We’re looking for that improvement on our back end, but we all know that. This isn’t sneaking up on us and we know that our goaltender can stop a lot of pucks, we’ve got to give him a chance to be the difference in the game," Maurice said. "We did that in the Edmonton series, we gave him the chance to be the difference and he was. We didn’t get to that in the Montreal series and that’s the place where we can make our biggest improvement."
The Jets finished the abbreviated 2021 season with a record of 30-23-3, good for third in the all-Canadian North Division, before sweeping the Oilers in an opening-round playoff series.
But the Montreal Canadiens proved too big a challenge, rattling off four straight victories over Winnipeg in Round 2.
Cheveldayoff, who also faced the Zoom lens, was less forthright on the urgency for defensive help, preferring to stick with the familiar talking points.
"If you look at how these teams have evolved over time and whether it’s cap situations or players deciding to retire, those are things that as an organization we were faced with and we have to find ways to address that. It doesn’t just happen overnight, whether it’s a young player that matures into that role or whether it’s a trade or free agency, you’re always looking at different ways to be able to continue to improve," said Cheveldayoff.
"I do think that the group of players that we had on defence this year, I guess, complemented each other and found a way to do that — and to complement each other."
The head of Winnipeg's hockey department faces a hectic summer, with the expansion draft (July 21), NHL Draft (July 23-24) and free agency (July 28).
"We’ve got some contracts (Pionk, defenceman Logan Stanley and forward Andrew Copp) that we need to take care of… on the (restricted free-agency side). So, there’s lots of work on that regard that will dictate what we have available to be aggressive or not, if there’s players that fit that mould," said Cheveldayoff. "It’s not much different than any other summer in those regards. You’ve got your internal business to take care of, the difference being the expansion draft.
"Will you have to replace a hole that’s created because of the player that you lose? That remains to be seen. But you look at all of the different options available to you to try and move that forward, including internally, with young player development."
Winnipeg has promising youngsters Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg, both left-shooting defencemen, waiting in the wings. Maurice faced some criticism for not turning to the smooth-skating, puck-moving Finn during the abbreviated 2021 campaign and the post-season.
But he was steadfast in his resolve that such a move wouldn't have been a responsible one.
"(Heinola is) a good, young, small defenseman and he doesn’t have to get bigger, I don’t think he has to get a whole lot smarter; he just has to get faster and then he’s got to come in and earn a job on the left side, which is a challenge here right now when you’ve got Stanley and Samberg and Heinola and you’ve got Morrissey, so we’re stacked there," said Maurice.
"He’s not going to play a physical game, he’s going to play a speed game and a puck-moving game. But he’s like all good, young, small defensemen, he’s going to take a little bit of time before he’s pulling it across on the power play and everybody says how great he is. But he’s a good player. Those guys are good players. They’re not the tipping point right now for the Winnipeg Jets, that’s all.
"When there is good, young players that can come in and help, then we want to have them in our lineup. I don’t think we’re late on anybody here. I don’t think we’ve ever slow-played a young player."
Maurice, who took over the reins in Winnipeg in early 2014, was given a multi-year contract extension in February 2020, although no terms were released. A handful of players gave him a solid vote of confidence, while Cheveldayoff also expressed strong satisfaction with the entire coaching staff's body of work during a uniquely challenging 2021 season.
Maurice said it was among the most gratifying times of his long coaching career.
"As far as the shelf life, I understand that in my job you’re always gonna have your critics and that’s a beautiful part of pro sports, it’s the passion of the game. But I’m really proud of the job I did and the staff did this year under incredibly trying circumstances. Our team played hard, fought through adversity," he said.
"But a bigger thing that maybe I can’t sell, but I’ll explain to you, it’s pretty important: The room right now, the culture in our room right now is as good as it’s been since I’ve been here and I think that’s priority one for your job as a coach. I think we have more players invested in Winnipeg now than we ever had.
"It’s all of those connections that we need to have in Winnipeg because we’re not like some of the major markets that can draw players. They’re gonna have us on their no-trade lists, all those things that we compete with. So our draw has to be our room, and the culture of our room, and the togetherness of these guys. That, I say, without qualification: This is as close a group as we’ve ever had and the culture in our room is as strong as it’s ever been. And the coaches, in fact, are a part of that."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).