Winnipeg Jets fans can expect head coach Paul Maurice and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to continue being the ones mandated with turning the club into a playoff contender.
The two met with reporters Monday, two days after the Jets (40-35-7) missed the NHL playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons since relocating from Atlanta. Despite that, contract extensions are expected for both.
Cheveldayoff, the only GM the club has had since moving to Manitoba, said he’s had conversations about his contract with co-owner Mark Chipman.
“I’ve got nothing to report here right now,” he said. “I love this organization.
“This is an organization, for me, that we started a process and I’d like to see that process through, so I’m hopeful there’s something at some point in time.”
He hasn’t started talks with Maurice, but Cheveldayoff said they’re coming.
“Paul Maurice is the coach of this hockey team and what, where, how we go through the next steps, those are things that we’ll have discussions as we go,” Cheveldayoff said. “But, for me, Paul’s got my full support.”
Maurice is heading into the final season of a four-year contract extension he signed in April 2014. He replaced Claude Noel, who was fired earlier that year in January.
Maurice, who’s guided the team to a 136-112-33 mark and one playoff appearance (in 2015) isn’t worried about contract talks.
“I’m going to do whatever (Cheveldayoff and Chipman) ask me to do,” he said. “I don’t think about that a whole lot, I never have in my career.
“Every contract I’ve ever done took about 10 minutes.”
Maurice, 50, still supports Winnipeg’s draft-and-develop path and likes the strides that have been made.
“Doesn’t need to be turned around, it’s headed in the right direction,” Maurice said. “This is by far the youngest, but also the team with the most opportunity that I think I’ve ever coached, clearly.”
The Jets showed they could score goals, with first-year player Patrik Laine recording a team-high 36. He finished four behind rookie leader Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Fourth-year centre Mark Scheifele had a team-high 82 points with 32 goals, Blake Wheeler scored 26 goals, Nikolaj Ehlers had 25 and Bryan Little added 21.
But while the team tied for sixth overall with 249 goals scored, it allowed 256, the league’s fourth-highest total.
“How do we develop a defensive game in offensive players? That’s the challenge you’re faced with, with this group,” Maurice said.
He also assessed sophomore goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who became the starter after veteran Ondrej Pavelec was sent to the AHL’s Manitoba Moose after training camp.
“I would look at Connor like our hockey team, the whole group,” Maurice said. “There are lots of games you really liked and you saw into the future.”
Hellebuyck was 26-19-4 with a 2.89 goals-against average and .907 save percentage. Backup Michael Hutchinson went 9-12-3 with a 2.92 GAA and .903 save percentage.
“Some nights we played really well in front of (Hellebuyck), some nights we didn’t give our goaltenders much of a chance. That’s a fact,” Maurice said. “(Hellebuyck is) going to learn how to fight now, learn how to compete a little harder.”
Cheveldayoff said “the sky’s the limit” for Hellebuyck but isn’t adverse to bringing in competition.
He and Maurice pointed to the club’s heavy early season schedule and 355 man games lost to injury as having an impact on the team’s performance. But both were optimistic about a group that finished with a franchise-record seven-game win streak.
“I don’t see four rookies making our team again at the start of the year so we’ll be better,” Maurice predicted. “We’ll be better in all areas.
“It will be incremental. There are areas that we have to improve that aren’t going to come easy. We’ll get better.”
Notes: Laine won’t play for Finland at next month’s world championship, but six Jets have accepted invites: Scheifele and rookie defenceman Josh Morrissey (Canada), Hellebuyck, defenceman Jacob Trouba and forward Andrew Copp (U.S.) and Ehlers (Denmark).
Judy Owen, The Canadian Press