VANCOUVER — Regrets? Sure, Paul Maurice has a few. Just don't hold your breath expecting the admittedly stubborn head coach of the Winnipeg Jets to completely overhaul his style, or his philosophy, going forward.
In a wide-ranging chat Friday afternoon prior to the start of the NHL draft, the veteran bench boss shared his thoughts on numerous topics: losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues in six games; his usage of young players; the Jacob Trouba trade and the state of his blue-line, player turnover caused by salary cap constraints; the leadership group on his team and whether changes are needed; and how to get his group back on track after falling short of high expectations.
There was one overriding theme to the majority of his answers, which likely won't sit well with fans and/or critics who believe Maurice has either lost the room or lost his way.
"I’m not ready to change the grip. We hit the ball down the fairway an awful lot. We had one go in the water on us in the playoffs, but I’m not sure that I’m changing my clubs or my grip yet. We’ve got a pretty good hockey team," Maurice said of his club, which posted 99 points last season, good for second in the Central Division, following a 114-point campaign a year earlier
That's not to say everything will be status quo when the Jets kick off the 2019-20 season with a road trip that begins Oct. 3 in the Big Apple, of all places, and a meeting with former defenceman Jacob Trouba, who was shipped to the New York Rangers earlier this week for Neal Pionk and the 20th-overall pick in the first-round of the draft.
Seriously, you couldn't have scripted a better storyline to kick off the new campaign. It's like something right out of a Broadway show, with Trouba even tweeting Friday "who's paying the schedule maker?"
"Not surprised. You know it’s coming. I like Jake. The tough part is you feel like you invested in a player, especially a defenceman because they take a little while longer to get their feet wet and get comfortable, he was hitting his peak and in his prime," Maurice said of the trade.
"But the challenge is a function of we’ve got a bunch of really, really young players that produced at a young age and their numbers say they’re going to get paid, so not everybody gets to stay."
That means changes are coming to the lineup, and Trouba likely isn't the only familiar face not coming back. That's not necessarily a bad thing, according to Maurice.
"It can be exciting. When you didn’t get to where you wanted to get to but you think you’re moving in the right direction, a little bit of a change is a good thing," he said. "We’re still a real young group. A little bit of change can be a good thing, so I’m excited about our group."
Maurice said he's watched video of most of Pionk's play last season and thinks fans are going to be pleasantly surprised by the new addition.
"I like his game, he skates, can get to the puck first and he’s not afraid to go back and get it. I think his style of game is going to fit in specifically with what we need with the other defencemen we have back. We’re still filling out that lineup on the back end over the course of the summer," said Maurice, who also spoke this week with Pionk's former coach with the Rangers, David Quinn.
Maurice admits he can be tough on young players, and it's clear that doesn't always sit well with them. It's no secret the Jets were a fractured bunch by the end of last season as things began heading south, and Maurice even referenced having to smooth over some "ruffled feathers."
Given the passage of a couple months now, I asked Maurice on Friday whether it was time to look at some leadership changes. I firmly believe the current group of captain Blake Wheeler and alternates Mark Scheifele and Dustin Byfuglien needs an overhaul or an addition. While Maurice certainly left the door open — he named both Josh Morrissey and Adam Lowry specifically — it doesn't sound like anything is imminent.
"You know what, I like our room and I like the people that are building that next layer of leadership we’ve got coming in. They’re coming into a time where they can hold the room with a comment and they can impact the game with a play," said Maurice.
"So much of leadership is based on age. As you get a little experience you get your difficult challenges that all teams have and you learn to handle them. And that’s leadership."
Translation: the young guys still have some dues to pay in the eyes of the coach. More of that staying the course.
Maurice may have no choice but to lean on several more young players next season, including Sami Niku and Tucker Poolman on defence, and Jack Roslovic, Mason Appleton and Kristian Vesalainen at forward. All could find themselves playing important roles, thanks, in part, to their relatively cheap contracts, which are desperately needed to balance the big-ticket ones.
Maurice said there's plenty he and his players could learn from St. Louis, which went from last in the NHL standings at the beginning of January to winning it all less than six months later. They battled back from the dead, a combination of veteran savvy and youthful exuberance mixed with sparkling goaltending from rookie Jordan Binnington, firm, steady coaching from Craig Berube and the momentum of a runaway freight train.
The Jets, of course, dropped the first two games to the Blues on home ice, won the next two in Missouri and then had a 2-0 lead through 40 minutes in Game 5, only to implode and give up three straight goals to lose. They then were overwhelmed in Game 6 in St. Louis, which ended their season.
Maurice watched the rest of the playoffs and said it was like Groundhog Day with the Blues.
"I thought it was the exact same series over and over again. Resilience. Tight games. Not necessarily domination through the series but domination at times. Great goaltending. And that would be the painful thing. It was the same series over and over. Each team that they beat were right there but not quite good enough in the end," said Maurice.
He said any lingering sour taste is long gone from his mouth.
"I’m more excited now maybe going forward than I was at this time last year. The reality is we’re not that much older, the door wasn’t closed. There’s a bunch of teams, yep, that are going to have cap constraints and there’s a reason for it. The really, really good young players that produced are going to get paid. And we’ll go through that," he said.
As for the "ruffled feathers" comment, Maurice said it was a case of everyone on the team being "growly" at the way the year ended. That's a feeling he hopes stays with them through the summer and comes with them at training camp.
"You don’t want them all healed. You want to bring a little bit of that pain back. You want to keep some of that. Sour is a better word. Whether you’re right or wrong, but if you think you’re in that mix of teams that are good enough to win and you don’t, it hurts like hell," said Maurice.
"The last thing that you want is everybody coming back happy the next year. It was good enough. The golf season was longer. That’s the exact opposite mindset of what you want."
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.