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Paul Maurice figures it just might be the most unpredictable playoff series of them all, featuring a pair of Western Canadian squads who hardly know a thing about each other.
There’s not a lot of helpful video for the Winnipeg Jets head coach and his staff to look through as they prepare for a best-of-five qualifying round series against the Calgary Flames beginning Aug. 1. The former Smythe Division rivals have met just once this season, and that was under unique circumstances at the Heritage Classic in Regina.
Not only did they play under a snowy sky at a football stadium, but Bill Peters was the coach of the opponent, soon to be replaced by Geoff Ward.
"I’ve watched it once, and didn’t cut anything out of it to use," Maurice admitted Tuesday. "This series is the most unique in the NHL. We’ve at least played all the teams in the East a game we can watch and understand, but that outdoor game is a different animal. I don’t think there’s a whole lot there you can use."
Instead, the Jets will focus their preparation on the version of the Flames just prior to the COVID-19 pause in mid-March. Ironically, Winnipeg’s next game on the schedule was to be in Calgary, with another meeting to follow a couple weeks later.
"At the end of the day, NHL teams are kind of like battleships. It’s not like you’re ripping apart a brand-new system and putting something completely different in easily," said Maurice.
"There’s probably nothing unique in the NHL, in any one system. So if you have three major defensive systems, your forecheck, your neutral zone defence and your D-zone coverage, and maybe three major offensive systems in how you break out the puck, how you counter and your offensive zone play, you’re probably not going to find one team that does something completely different. But what makes them different is the combination of those systems that they run, and then, of course, the bigger one is the individual skill set of the players running those systems."
Jets captain Blake Wheeler was among the first NHL players to speak about social justice issues including racism and inequality earlier this year following the killing of a Black man at the hands of a white police officer in his home state of Minnesota.
And that had his coach beaming.
"The overriding thought for me is that I love it when people of Winnipeg get a glimpse into who this guy is. If you research Paul Maurice saying nice things about Blake Wheeler, there’s going to be a whole lot of articles come up. And I wonder sometimes if it sounds like I’m trying to be nice to my captain. But this guy’s a special guy. He’s an intense guy and he’s a caring guy," said Maurice.
"So it doesn’t surprise me that there’s an injustice that he sees, that he feels. And he speaks up and he speaks his mind. But in all of his comments and in all of his conversations, there’s a passion that comes out. It’s just like when you guys talk to him after a game. It’s real. That’s the person that he is. But he lives it. There’s lots of guys that appear very intense but don’t play all that hard. They’ve got a good persona but you never actually see it on the ice. The way he plays is the way he practises is the way he prepares. And it’s the personality you see in front of the camera and that is true and consistent throughout his life. I look at that. He has a special message and he wants to share it and I think it’s great for Winnipeg Jets fans to see what their captain... see what he believes and see what he stands up for."
Four Jets were missing in action for a second straight day of camp.
Backup goalie Laurent Brossoit and defencemen Anthony Bitetto, Nelson Nogier and Logan Stanley have not skated at camp. Under new NHL protocols, all the Jets are permitted to say is they were "not fit to practice" without having to give further details regarding injury and/or illness.
There’s been some local buzz about why 19-year-old Ville Heinola wasn’t added to the playoff roster. The talented defencemen, picked in the first round of the 2019 draft, made the Jets out of camp last fall and skated in eight games with the big club, and three more with the Manitoba Moose, before returning to his pro league in Finland.
"Certainly lots of consideration was given to him. You know, we’ve got 10 defencemen that were under NHL contract and basically on the NHL roster at the end of the season," explained general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.
"With a player like Ville, who we believe that the future is the most important thing for him right now, we felt that the fact that he came over here, went back, went to world juniors, went back to his team, that if we weren’t going to be able to put him in a certain situation where he was absolutely going to be playing on a nightly basis that it was going to be best for him to make sure that we don’t interrupt his summer training regime so that he’s ready to provide some regular opportunities for him next season."
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.
Updated on Wednesday, July 15, 2020 at 12:24 AM CDT: Adds photos
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