DALLAS – He couldn’t bring himself to do it. Not even one little peek. No, Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice admits he boycotted the Stanley Cup final, saying the wound was still too fresh and too deep to park himself in front of a television set.
“I didn’t watch a minute of it. Because I didn’t need the anger that goes with it,” Maurice admitted Friday as he spoke at a downtown Dallas hotel just a few hours before the 2018 NHL draft.
It was a candid revelation from a so-called hockey lifer who eats, breathes and sleeps the game. But Maurice said it would have been too painful to watch the Vegas Golden Knights — fresh off beating his Winnipeg Jets during the Western Conference final — playing for the ultimate prize against the Washington Capitals, who won in five games.
“It’s getting divorced and going to the (ex-wife’s) wedding,” Maurice cracked.
He’s finally at a point now where he can start doing his required homework and recently finished watching Game 1 on tape. The other four will follow later this summer. But thoughts of what could have been will always be in the back of his mind.
“I’ve talked to a bunch of guys from both teams. It’s a fine line, in both series. It’s one goal games that get turned on one play. It didn’t for us, and it turned for Washington. Vegas deserved to win (against the Jets), because they did. I’m not over it yet,” said Maurice.
“You come to this thing and everybody’s shaking your hand, telling you you had a great season and you don’t feel like that. We will. But it still doesn’t feel like that yet.”
Maurice said one thing has become clearer the day since their season ended in late May — the value of the journey the Jets went on will become the new foundation for the franchise going forward.
“Training camp preparations have already started and a big piece of that is what do you think we learned, where do we need to get better, where do we need to become more consistent based on what we learned playing playoff hockey,” said Maurice. “That information, and that growth or progress is there. We have to capitalize on it. It can’t lie dormant.”
Maurice said he’s had conversations with officials from Edmonton and Ottawa, who both followed up strong recent series and playoff runs with disappointing campaigns. There’s lessons to be learned from their experience.
“I know that the challenge going forward…is that idea that you think you’ve done something and you think you don’t have to re-establish it. But we do, we have to go right back to re-establish that game, and then when you get to that right level, when you’ve done your good work, those things that you’ve learned will come out,” said Maurice.
“It doesn’t transfer over to the next year. You think you might be a little smarter, but school gets harder, right. And it does get like that.”
Maurice said it’s important that the Jets will likely return much of the same battle-tested squad.
“One of the strengths, we felt, is we did have a very tight-knit group. They had been together now just long enough that they communicate with each other as well on the ice as they do off. That’s part of that learning process. So we do think that there’s some really good things about that group. Not having to make a lot of changeover is usually a sign that you don’t feel you have huge holes,” said Maurice. “But it also usually tends to say that you’re probably not far off getting up against the cap. If you have young guys that have transitioned out of their entry-level contracts and you like them, there’s going to come a point in time where you’re bumping up against the cap.”
That’s the big challenge facing GM Kevin Cheveldayoff this summer, with nine restricted free agents along with the fact Patrik Laine is eligible for an extension. Not to mention that there is interest in bringing pending free agent Paul Stastny back if the financials can be worked out.
“We’re all big boys here and we all understand how this works. So the first answer is we’d love to have him back. We believe that that feeling is mutual. It was a great experience for both camps. If it can happen it will. If it can be done, it will be. But it would not be an easy thing to do,” said Maurice. “There’s some pieces that have to fall and move for this to happen. And then there’s the whole big chunk of unknown, where do these guys coming out of entry level fit, what are they gonna get. So is it possible, yes. Is it going to be easy, no.”
Captain Blake Wheeler is also set to enter the final year of his contract if an extension isn’t reached this summer.
“I’m hopeful and we all are that something (will happen regarding an extension), but I would not be nervous about that. I don’t think it factors into how he plays or (is an issue) in our room,” said Maurice.
Maurice touched on a number of other subjects Friday. He raved about the play of rookie Jack Roslovic in the series against Vegas and projected him being a big part of the team as early as this fall, possibly at centre. He said he’s talked to defenceman Tyler Myers about moving to the left side, which would open the door for Tucker Poolman.
Maurice said he’ll be spending much of this summer working with his staff on breaking down what went right last season, with a view on analytics and what improvements can be made. He specifically mentioned an improved penalty kill and better exits out of their own zone as priorities.
Finally, Maurice was asked whether he possibly overworked Vezina finalist Connor Hellebuyck in goal and if that will change next season.
“Because we lose (the series to Vegas) so (the narrative is) that he ran out of gas. My answer is no. We were doing everything we could do to win – and that’s important. There’s also a growth component in the playoffs, so now he knows what it’s like to run that many games. Playing him in 45, thinking that maybe he’ll have a little more juice in the playoffs, that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to us,” said Maurice.
“I probably would have shaved three or four games off. We talked to him and we monitored this very closely with him because it was a different experience for him. He had more fatigue earlier in the year, he felt great going into the playoffs. He was picking his games the last six weeks. ‘I want to stay in and I want to stay in a rhythm.’ We lost, so all of the things you could have changed, you can say those are valuable arguments, but I wouldn’t change that.”
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.