Paul Maurice was already on the hot seat to begin the 2019-20 NHL season — and some sizable chunks of coal have been tossed down to raise the temperature.
The Winnipeg head coach is overseeing a Jets training camp that is far from complete, with the monumental absences of restricted-free-agents Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor — each in a contract stalemate with the organization — and the sudden personal leave granted to all-star defenceman Dustin Byfuglien.
And yet Maurice, whose own contract situation remains a mystery to just about everyone outside management’s inner circle, gave no impression Friday he’s got a cyanide capsule under his tongue if he should fail.
He told reporters at the Iceplex he’s endured enough in his more-than-20-year professional coaching career that he can manage the most-burdensome situations.
"You deal with it, like injuries. With Dustin, he missed half the season for us last year and that’s true of all players. Again, we may hit opening night and not have any of these problems (and) have all three guys back in the lineup," Maurice said.
"So, we go out at camp and we’ve got a direction we want to move the team in terms of style of play and we also need to assess some of these new faces coming in and see where they fit. That’s the purpose of camp."
Maurice even put a somewhat positive spin on the circumstances the Central Division squad faces.
"As one of (the players) said to me this summer, ‘There’s only so many seats at the table,’ so when one opens up, everybody gets pretty excited about it. Sure, everybody wants more. And there’s opportunity when players leave. That reshuffling idea always gives somebody the idea he can get to play more," he said.
Interestingly, Maurice confirmed he travelled to Finland to meet with Laine over the summer, noting he regularly meets with players during the off-season. He said the purpose of the visit wasn’t to discuss the sniper’s contract situation.
"I stay the hell away from that stuff," he said. "Never, ever have I ever talked money with a player or contract status.
"Any time that I meet with a guy or talk to a guy on the phone that’s in that situation, that’s the first line out of my mouth. I stay out of that because I have no control over it.
"We talked hockey and then we talked life and got to know him a little bit better and what he does away from the rink, what he has fun with. It never, ever came up that he didn’t enjoy being in Winnipeg or playing here," said Maurice, 52, who took over in Winnipeg during the 2013-14 season after Claude Noel was dismissed.
Maurice spent more than 20 minutes in front of the cameras Friday, covering a number of topics. Here’s a sample:
Last season, the Jets bolted from the gate but faltered after Christmas and really struggled down the stretch, winning just three of their final nine regular-season games before being ousted from the opening round of the playoffs by the eventual Stanley Cup-champion St. Louis Blues.
Team defence was a prickly issue for the Jets during the 2018-19 season, as the team surrendered 244 goals, compared to an NHL fifth-best 218 the previous campaign.
On beefing up the defensive game, while rebuilding a defensive corps without Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot, and getting additional mileage out of Sami Niku and Tucker Poolman, among others, Maurice said this:
"There are specifics to playing defence that need to get developed with a young team. There’s a development curve that goes into playing defence, just as there is with offence. The skill of it, how to control the puck in terms a defending a guy, you learn those things as you go, so you’re looking for improvement in that. And then every group comes together and you make that assessment of strengths and weaknesses, where we’re going to be good," he said.
"We’ve got four things. Come to camp every day and you’ll know what they are because we’re going to work on them right from Day 1. We’ve got four things defensively we really want to clue in on and be good at. And some of it’s kind of re-establishing, some of it is a new way of handling certain events that happen in the game defensively. So you guys get to come and watch and get all the details."
"I’ll answer this now, so when you ask it four days from now I can say there’s going to be all different line combinations that happen in the first seven days, I believe, through the third exhibition game. I tell you that now and I know things are going to change on injury. I’m playing people that never played together before. In some parts of it, you’ll see with the new faces that come in, the best thing they can do is play with a guy who knows the systems."
"Both (Andrew Copp and Jack Roslovic) on the wings." The impression he left is that Bryan Little is once again slotted in as the second-line centre.
"The pro would be that you’ve got two really good players and somebody else gets to play with them. The con would be we’ve got elite production. I think Blake sits third in the NHL over the last two years in assists and top-10 in points. We know we get production with that and the cost of that. As your lineup in some ways, when you suffer injuries or are missing pieces at times, gets to that point, you would think more about concentrating forces and roles. When your lineup’s full and healthy, there’s more room to spread things out."
"There’s a point in the summer where you go, ‘OK, I’ve seen this before.’ I’ve seen every single year somebody does some good things in the summer, and I get it. We all anoint them as the new Cup contender. Look at the pieces they’ve added. But there’s enough of those teams that actually didn’t make the playoffs over the history as the team that nobody talked about surprised everybody and went on a run — that happens just as often.
"Yeah, you look at the Central Division, the pieces that Dallas has added, all of those things. But the games gotta get played. And it’ll be the team that plays as close to the best their team is possible of playing, those ones make it. The Central Division, I’ve never felt it got easier. Every year, it seems to be like that. There’s a jockeying of position. Some of it’s based on health, goaltending — a lot of times your schedule, how it plays out. It’s going to be a grinder, man. But I felt the same way every year."
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).
Updated on Saturday, September 14, 2019 at 8:52 AM CDT: Corrects typo