Head coach Paul Maurice has been given a four-year extention to guide the Winnipeg Jets, and he and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff appear to be of one mind on some of the team’s upcoming issues.
One of them is keeping Ondrej Pavelec as the team’s starting goaltender.
Cheveldayoff said it was disappointing not to make the playoffs but he didn’t suggest he’s deviating in any big way from his draft-and-develop philosophy and that includes sticking with his 26-year-old starting netminder.
“Ondrej Pavelec is the No. 1 goaltender going into next season,” the general manager insisted.
“He’s relatively a young goaltender when it comes to being a starting goaltender and when you give those young players those opportunities to excel there’s going to be some bumps along the way.”
With a save percentage of .901 (70th among all goalies in the NHL) and a goals against average of 3.01 (69th) Pavelec is a frequent target of criticism.
Maurice says he wouldn’t have a lot to say about who plays for the team, which is a general manager’s job, but he had no problem at all with Pavelec as his starting netminder.
“We’re at a stage in our franchise where we’ve got three or four potentially critical pieces through our lineup that are here that we’ve got to make better. We’ve got to put them in a position to be better then they have to be better. ...
“And I think Evander Kane falls into that hole, really good young talented players that need to develop, that need to get better and I think they will get better ... In my mind, with Ondrej Pavelec, we have to do everything we can as a team to give our goaltending the best chance to win us games and that hasn’t happened yet.”
Kane finished with only 19 goals this season, a far cry from the 30 the forward scored in 2011-12, although this season he missed 19 games — 18 due to injuries and another as a healthy scratch, reportedly for missing a team meeting.
Maurice came in as Claude Noel’s replacement in January and impressed Jets management as well as the players with his skills.
“He’s an impressive hockey coach but he’s an impressive person as well,” Cheveldayoff said.
“He walked in and he made a tremendous impact from the moment he walked in and we believe that we’re just scratching the surface on the impact he can make on this franchise moving forward.”
Maurice, 47, said on the phone from his current home in Ohio that he made the decision fairly early on that he wanted to stay in Winnipeg. The deal was done Tuesday and he immediately flew home to talk about it with his family and they supported him.
“It didn’t take much time, I called Kevin and said we’re in and put a sign on the front steps today,” he said.
Maurice guided the team to an 18-12-5 record over 35 games after Noel’s firing, a decision that Cheveldayoff said hurt him to the core.
“Claude Noel is a tremendous coach and an even better person,” he said.
Noel had only part of one season as an NHL head coach on his resume when he was handed the reins of the Jets in 2011. His replacement has a career coaching record of 478-469-172 over 1,119 NHL games with the Jets, Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes/Hartford Whalers franchise.
Maurice, who also said Wednesday he has accepted an offer to join Team Canada as an assistant coach for the world championship, says the Jets are further along and have a better balance of youth and experience than some of the other teams he’s coach in the NHL.
He says that means their development should be faster. Whether the goal of making the playoffs can be achieved next year, the answer seems to be maybe, but not initially as a Stanley Cup contender.
“We’re trying to move to the middle of the pack, I mean the end goal here is to be a contending team, and I think there are six of those teams right now in the Western Conference, I think there’s two in the Eastern Conference. . . then there’s the other eight teams that are in the playoffs,” he said.
Winnipeg finished with a 37-35-10 record on the season and settled for an 11th-place finish in the Western Conference with 84 points. It was exactly the same record they managed in their first year in their new home in 2011-12, although the Jets were in the Eastern Conference until this season.
It was also the third straight season they have missed the playoffs since relocating to Winnipeg from Atlanta. The former Atlanta Thrashers made the playoffs only once, in 2007.
The Jets have a fairly long list of restricted and unrestricted free agents this season but the only one Cheveldayoff mentioned Wednesday as a player they want to keep for sure was forward and restricted free agent Michael Frolik. He finished with 42 points and met or exceeded the expectations the Jets had when they acquired him from Chicago last year.
But the general manager also didn’t rule out looking outside the Jets for the right unrestricted free agent or making a trade to strengthen their core group, particularly at forward.
He hasn’t made a lot of trades since taking on the job three years ago (only 13) and the only two that would even come close to involving higher profile players would be Frolik and Devin Setoguchi. They were also his last, in the summer of 2013.
“Some of it might have to come from a trade,” he said of his desire to add a winger or a centre.
The Jets are still focusing on young players throughout the organization and the role they can play. At the end of the season, for example, they brought in goalie Michael Hutchinson from the AHL’s St. John’s IceCaps and he won two of the three final games he played.
Cheveldayoff says the core group the Jets have signed to long-term contracts continues to perform.
“We like what we have in a lot of different areas here. . . Guys like Blake Wheeler had a tremendous year, Bryan Little had a tremendous year, Andrew Ladd had a tremendous year. . . We haven’t even touched on (Mark) Scheifele and (Jacob) Trouba.”
He said Scheifele and Trouba had a big impact and the two rookies are only going to get better.