ST. LOUIS — Forget about running practices, juggling his lineup or managing the bench. Paul Maurice's biggest challenge this year may be dealing with the great expectations that will follow his team into every rink.

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This article was published 4/10/2018 (1370 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

ST. LOUIS — Forget about running practices, juggling his lineup or managing the bench. Paul Maurice's biggest challenge this year may be dealing with the great expectations that will follow his team into every rink.

That was certainly on display Thursday morning in St. Louis, as the head coach of the Winnipeg Jets dealt with a large media contingent following the morning skate and fielded questions about the label of Stanley Cup contender that's been pinned on his squad.

You can expect more of the same when they land in Dallas today, in Nashville next week and pretty much every stop along the way between now and next spring.

Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice keeps an eye on team practice.

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Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice keeps an eye on team practice.

"There’s more questions about if it goes the way it’s supposed to go, then this should be easy. We knew that all summer, that it would be our challenge. The ease of the game of hockey, there just isn’t any. But mathematically, there can’t be that many contenders, can there? And if there are, then there’s no difference. If there are this many good teams — and there are — then nobody has the edge," Maurice said.

"I don’t think there’s an edge, there’s too many good teams. And the one’s that are building — Vancouver was going to have a tough year, until (Wednesday) night happened (a 5-2 win Canucks win over the Calgary Flames). Everybody is tough to beat. There is nothing easy. So that would be the challenge, handling that word easy."

As for the mighty Central Division, Maurice expects his team will have to scratch and claw for every point throughout the season.

"There will be no separation. There won’t be. Understanding that for our division, it will probably be the last week of the season when it all gets sorted out. The top end has always been good here and it’s still good. Who is in the top end is going to get sorted out for the year and then it’s a reset bottom. And the bottom end isn’t the bottom," said Maurice.

"Colorado (Avalanche) went from struggling to being a really tough out. They helped us (in the playoffs). They gave Nashville (Preadtors) everything they could handle last year in the playoffs. They were a good team, it wasn’t that Nashville played poorly. In the Central, there will be no separation and there will be no easy nights."

 

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Winnipeg Jets' Jack Roslovic, left, and Nikolaj Ehlers make up two-thirds of the team's new-look fourth line.

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Winnipeg Jets' Jack Roslovic, left, and Nikolaj Ehlers make up two-thirds of the team's new-look fourth line.

Another tall order for Maurice may be finding enough minutes for all his forwards to play.

You'll notice the Jets aren't exactly employing a traditional "fourth line" this year in the form of highly skilled speedsters in Jack Roslovic, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kristian Vesalainen. That's quite a change from the "GST" days of the Jets in Tanner Glass, Jim Slater and Chris Thorburn.

So, will the coach find a way to get everyone into double-digit minutes every night?

"No. There will be nights, absolutely. And in a perfect world, yes. It’s going to be a fight for ice time, but it will not be spreading it out to develop and make everybody feel good," said Maurice.

 

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The most surprising development out of training camp may have been the fact Dmitry Kulikov has seemingly been passed on the team's defensive depth chart, at least for now.

Winnipeg Jets' Dmitry Kulikov will be in the pressbox when the team takes on the St. Louis Blues.

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Winnipeg Jets' Dmitry Kulikov will be in the pressbox when the team takes on the St. Louis Blues.

Signed to a three-year, US $12.99-million contract in summer 2017, Kulikov was a healthy scratch for Thursday's opener. Both Ben Chiarot and Joe Morrow were in the lineup, partnered with Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers respectively.

Kulikov, 27, suffered a major back injury last March and missed the rest of the regular season and all of the playoffs except for the final game in May, when he was deemed healthy enough to dress in place of veteran Toby Enstrom. He then had off-season surgery.

Getting back up to speed may literally be the issue. Although Maurice had said Kulikov is healthy, he's clearly looking for more out of the blue-liner by relegating him to the press box.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.