WINNIPEG - When it comes to the topic of his revamped defence corps, Paul Maurice sees no need for a poker face.
The head coach of the Winnipeg Jets was positively giddy when the discussion was broached on the opening day of rookie camp.
These five days of on- and off-ice sessions represent more of an introductory seminar for a group of prospects, newcomers and several other individuals on the periphery of the roster.
It’s a chance to get the legs and hands going before the open competition begins and the focus moves to trying to nail down the few vacant roster spots that will be available.
But as the Jets bench boss spoke to reporters for the first time since exit interviews back in June, it didn’t take long for the blue line to come to the forefront, and Maurice wasn’t about to hide his enthusiasm regarding the additions of Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon via trade.
In less than a 48-hour span, the Jets defence went from a potential weakness to a strength.
Can this collective group rival the 2017-18 Jets blue line that featured Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Toby Enstrom, Ben Chiarot, Dmitry Kulikov, Josh Morrissey and Joe Morrow?
That remains to be seen, but what is certain is that the upgrades are noticeable and most of the question marks have been removed.
“We managed incredibly well over two years with a real extreme set of circumstances, losing three (guys to trade and free agency) and then Dustin (retiring). It could have been devastating,” said Maurice. “We found good men. I loved the defence corps last year individually. But as a group, there was lots of room for us to get to another level.
“Both of these guys are well known in the league for style of play, for character, and they’re going to fit into our room. I’ve got an office down by the door and the players walk by that door every morning. What you want for training camp is the sense of hope when they’re walking by that door, that they’re excited about the people we’ve brought in and where we’re going to. There are a lot of excited players here, coaches too.”
The excitement level stretches to some stylistic changes that could be on the horizon.
While Maurice didn’t get into the specifics, it’s fair to suggest the Jets could get back to being a more aggressive, up-tempo team that flourishes in transition rather than one that had some issues with clean zone exits and often made life more challenging than it needed to be for Connor Hellebuyck when it came to allowing high-danger scoring chances.
Given the skill level and depth up front, the Jets figure to be more prolific offensively, but they’re not about to become a run-and-gun team that doesn’t pay attention to detail in the defensive zone.
“I like everything you said right up to free-up the offence, because that’s the green light not to come back into our end. Let’s not get carried away with that,” said Maurice.
“But style of play over the last five years... a lot changed dramatically due to changes on our blue line. Especially to two seasons ago, where our goaltender was good, and even with that I think we finished 10th in goals against. But we had to ask our forwards to do an awful lot, and still gave something up. So we will have a style change this year, for sure, probably in all three zones. But I think we’re mature enough to do it now.”
Not only does Schmidt bring talent and experience to the back end, but his infectious energy figures to provide a boost - especially as the entire NHL transitions from a compressed 56-game regular season to the full 82 games as everyone continues to deal with a pandemic.
“One of his former coaches says he’s the best culture guy he’s ever had on his team in the NHL,” said Maurice, likely referring to his good friend Pete DeBoer who had Schmidt with the Vegas Golden Knights. “So he’s going to be a real good player for us, he’s already bouncing around the room in there. He’s wired. He’s that guy every day. You love having those guys. Because you need the players to drive practice sometimes, too. If the coach is yelling every day to get jumping, to get moving, that’s never as good as if you’ve got a couple guys chirping.
“And it also takes the pressure off the other guys, the leaders, who maybe aren’t that vocal before the game in their best kind of prep mode, so they don’t have to be worried. You need a guy like that, who’s a chirper, who’s talking, who’s bringing the energy level of the room up. We’re really fortunate to have gotten him.”
The arrival of Schmidt and Dillon might delay the graduation of top prospects Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg from the AHL's Manitoba Moose, but part of the beauty of a new season is the unpredictability of it.
Dating back to January, there weren’t many people predicting the ascension of 2015 first-rounder Logan Stanley to regular duty on the Jets blue line either.
So you’ll excuse Samberg if he isn’t interested in projecting what the depth chart is going to look like, or whether or not he'll need further seasoning in the minors.
“It’s obviously something you notice,” said Samberg, who spent a chunk of the offseason working out with Jets blueliner Neal Pionk. “You try not to pay too much attention to it. You try and focus on your own game and make sure you’re bringing it every single day. You just put that to the side and work on yourself.”
As for the permutations and combinations on the back end, Maurice has a few ideas in mind and he’ll test those out during the exhibition games.
“I have the six that I think are going to make the team and the pairings they’ll sit in,” said Maurice, noting that Nathan Beaulieu is fully healthy after recovering from season-ending shoulder surgery. “It’s not set in stone because there are other opportunities.”
Now that Maurice has seemingly been given a talented roster with raised expectations, does that increase the pressure on him to deliver on-ice results?
“I’ve been here a while now and I want to win with this team, in this city especially,” said Maurice, who was hired in January of 2014. “I want to stay as long as I possibly can. I love it here. I also coach for a living and I know how this works. But I don’t feel that. I don’t feel a sense of tension from that end.
“There were four teams that we had a better season than we did (last season). It was a really painful ending and that hurt, but I like this group. I like where we got to through that seven-game losing streak and I think there’s a balance there now that we haven’t had. We can do a whole bunch of different things on the ice that we haven’t done before.”