Paul Maurice, the new head coach of the Winnipeg Jets, runs a drill with his new team during practice in Winnipeg on Monday, January 13, 2014. The Jets play the Phoenix Coyotes on Monday night. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
WINNIPEG - The Winnipeg Jets have a new coach on a short-term deal who knows he has a long-term project on his plate.
"We've got our challenges," Paul Maurice said after taking in his first practice with the team Monday morning.
"I'm not saying I'm coming in here and taking this team to a completely different level over the next week."
But the veteran coach of more than 1,000 NHL games, who took the Carolina Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup final in 2002, says he sees a lot of potential in the Jets.
"Youth size and speed is the easiest way for me to sum that up. I like some of the pieces and some of the parts."
The size was apparent when he stepped on the ice with the team at the MTS Centre.
"This is the first time that I've ever as a coach felt short and that's a really, really nice feeling," he said, following practice, as he met with reporters for the first time since arriving in Winnipeg after Claude Noel's firing Sunday.
The last straw for general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff was last week's 6-3 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Jets seemed to have taken a step backward rather than move away from the defensive lapses that have left them 19-23-5 and last in the Central Division.
For 2 1/2 years, Noel tried to inject a more responsible, defensive gene into the Jets, after they moved to Winnipeg from Atlanta. Now it's Maurice's turn and he agreed that seems to be what's missing.
"My concerns are—and you should never introduce a negative but I'll get to this now—getting them to play a game that has a defensive component in it (and) that, for those players that have been here a long time, they haven't done it."
He says it's his job to find a way to get players to buy into a system they can play that will help get them out of a slump that is sapping their confidence and building frustration. They have the skills, he suggests.
"You've seen it in the games where this team can look so dominant at points in time and then you question where that goes," he said.
Although he's been coaching in the NHL for almost 20 years, he said something he has learned relatively recently is that it takes time to work with players on an individual basis to help them grow and develop.
"Motivation is different for each player but at the end of the day with this group, with what they're going through, they just want to get out of it," he said.
"They just want to win. They want this to go away. The anger, the frustration by the fans, it's the same as the frustration in that locker-room. They want to find a way out. It's the coaching staff's job now to lead that way out."
The Jets are on a five-game losing streak and well out of that playoff spot Maurice says is one of his objectives. But he says creating confidence in a game the players can understand is his primary goal.
"I'm used to having some challenges. You know, the underdog team that at the very least fights like a dog," he said. "There've been too many years where we got to within a point but there weren't many when I walked away saying there was a whole lot more left on the table."
At least for now, he's only here for the rest of the season, which will end April 10 for the Jets unless their game turns around.
Maurice, 46, also coached the Toronto Maple Leafs for a couple of seasons and recently tried the KHL in Russia but opted to return home to be closer to his family.
Other than juggling lines a little, he didn't make a lot of changes prior to Monday night's game against the visiting Phoenix Coyotes, which the Jets won 5-1.
That includes leaving Dustin Byfuglien as a forward, although he says he can see him making major contributions as a blue-liner as well. Byfuglien is one of the top-scoring defencemen in the NHL but his minus-16 rating prompted Noel to try switching him to forward.
"We're not trying to go out there and change everything we do tonight," said centre Bryan Little, who will be playing on a line with familiar partner Andrew Ladd but also Michael Frolik.
"He's been here less than 24 hours and I think he realizes that and he's not going to change too much tonight but he expects us to work hard."
Little says he expects the changes to come once the Jets get some practice days. The players accepted much of the blame for Noel's firing and Little said a game will help.
"Once you're out there you kind of forget about everything that's happened and you can just play the game. I'm looking forward to it."