Jets still looking to take next step as tough roster decisions loom

Paul Maurice was about as candid as a person could be following an unexpected first round elimination. The Jets' coach admits he's not always 'warm and fuzzy' with his players, talks about how gut-wrenching the loss is and what the future may hold.

“Does that make sense?”

Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler was trying to explain what, exactly, it was that had slotted this year’s Jets into a season-long chase to catch up to the standard set by last year’s Winnipeg Jets.

It’s a longer quote, but in it, the Jets captain takes an honest stab at answering the basic question: Why couldn’t these Jets live up to themselves?

“(Last season) it felt like there was a 60-minute buy-in every night,” Wheeler began. “This year, even when we were winning, even when we were rolling … it just didn’t feel the same. It didn’t feel like the game was as dominant as it was the year before. Honestly, that’s probably just a product of learning how to be a good team.

“You know, we hadn’t won a whole lot,” he continued. “We had a 114-point season, and now you come back and you want to dominate every single game. Probably not realistic.

“From a mental standpoint … you get used to beating teams 4-1, having them leave your building, and then the next team comes in and you do the same thing. Then, all of a sudden, this is a destination where teams are bringing their ‘A’ game now, and that might just not be the way it works anymore.

“Does that make sense?”

It makes sense to his coach, Paul Maurice, who says the same thing, only more succinctly.

“I thought our dirty little secret here in Winnipeg was that we were a lot better defensive team that people knew when they played us,” Maurice said. This season, “teams didn’t come in to play the Winnipeg Jets. They came in to defend the Winnipeg Jets.”

These Jets had been built for this season, patiently put together by ‘draft and develop’ methodology. They took the first step last season with a trip to the Western Conference Final. How hard could it be to move on from there?

Well, ask the 2015 Calgary Flames, who thought they had something going when they won their first playoff round since 2004, took a hard lesson in Round 2, but looked like a team on the rise. The next season they finished 26th.

Or the Oilers, with their 103-point season in 2016-17? They’re still searching for that recipe.

As the Jets broke up a year ago, Paul Maurice was asked about following up a three-round spring, and the difficulties therein.

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“It’s a real serious topic because there is enough evidence to say that it’s possible (to fall off),” Maurice said then. “We saw it with some good young teams that thought they had crossed a threshold.”

The sheer talent amassed by general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and righthand man Craig Heisinger allowed the Jets to nearly win the Central, despite its struggles. But a first-round exit dictates that they never truly figured out how to take the next step. Or even, where that step was.

“It seems like a step back, but we have to take it for what it is: Lesson learned,” said utility centre Bryan Little. “You don’t just decide you want to win the Stanley Cup, and it’s easy from there. People were talking about the Stanley Cup when we got to training camp this year, which was crazy. Nothing is guaranteed — (even) that you’ll be in the playoffs. Yeah, we expected more of ourselves this year. Next year we’re going to come hungry again.”

Now, this roster will have to change, as dictated by the salary cap. Cheveldayoff admitted as much on Monday.

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor each made a base salary of $925,000 this season. Next year, we’ll guess, they could eat up $16-17 million between them. Wheeler’s new deal kicks in next season, tacking on $2.6 million to the payroll. Ben Chiarot, the kind of character defenceman you hate to lose, is a UFA.

That’s a cool $21 million, give or take, coming on to the Jets payroll. The Jets closed the season with almost $4 million in cap space. So, let’s do the math:

• As Paul Stastny did a year ago, UFA pick-up Kevin Hayes will go to unrestricted free agency. That’s $5.175 million.

• RFA Jacob Trouba remained reticent on Monday to declare his wish to return to Winnipeg. We’re betting Cheveldayoff trades him for picks/prospects. That’s $5.5 million.

• Cheveldayoff could let defenceman Tyler Myers walk and free up another $5.5 million, but can he afford to lose two of his Top 4 D-men? On a team where the coach believes they need to defend better?

Even then, the Jets are in arrears financially.

They’ve blown through their window when they can win with everyone. Now, they’ll have to win with the guys they decide to keep.

It can’t get any easier in Winnipeg. Toronto, you’re up next.

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