It took the Winnipeg Jets and head coach Paul Maurice little time to shake things up on Monday evening. Facing off against the Calgary Flames for the third-straight game in the final matchup of a seven-game road trip through Western Canada, the long-time Jets bench boss opted to flip his No. 1 and 2 centres for the evening, which provided the team with five goals, en route to a 5-1 thrashing of the lowly Flames.
Maurice, who has spent his fair share of time on an NHL bench, indicated post-game that the move was not for a lack of production, but more so an act of “preparation” for the task that lies ahead.
“What we need to do in the last 20 games is kind of get two or three options, depending on the teams we are playing,” Maurice said in reference to his club’s preparedness for the postseason. “So we have a really good idea of what Stastny, Scheif and Wheeler look like, and then now we will take a look at Connor and Scheif and Nikky, in kind of a different minute role. When you look at Dubois’ line they were at about 14-and-a-half here tonight. It changes some things for our team here, but we need to kind of figure out who all these guys are a little bit with Pierre-Luc being new to our team, we are still working on that.”
The change brought about three-point nights from both Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers, while Pierre-Luc Dubois scored the game’s final goal, with assists going to new linemates Blake Wheeler and Paul Stastny.
“We have a lot of different-looking players here that mesh well together,” Maurice added. “There are a lot of pieces now that are moveable because they have played together for a little while. But some of that really is all a function of our fourth line… So this would be the first bench that I’ve run in 25 years that’s built like that, that has a spectrum of talent and grit. It’s a pretty good group and I think it’s getting better.”
Huge words from a man who typically doesn’t show his hand when it comes to bragging about his own players.
According to Scheifele, the change came about rather suddenly, but it did not catch the now eighth-year Jets forward off guard.
“You know, just end of a road trip, not our greatest showing by our whole team the game before, so a little changeup isn’t always a bad thing,” he told Full Press. “The lucky thing on this team is there’s so many good players. No matter who you’re playing with, you’re playing with pretty fantastic players. There are different game styles, but we’re so blessed with such great forwards on this team, no matter who you’re playing with it’s always fun.”
Skating alongside two high-tempo wingers had the Jets’ point leader operating at a new pace on Monday. But with the full trust of his coaching staff, Scheifele was able to pick up the many reads sent his way by Connor and Ehlers, turning his looks into a two-goal, three-point outing.
“It’s obviously very different,” Scheifele said of his new line. “You have two skilled, fast guys in Nikky and KC, so you’ve got to keep your speed going, let them get going. And then get roaming around in the offensive zone. And then when you play with Wheels and Stas, they’re both such smart players, so you just make the simple plays over and over and over, and that’s how we get success. So there’s two very different lines, but obviously four very talented players than you’re playing with. It’s fun no matter who you’re playing with.”
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For Ehlers – who was producing well with newcomer Dubois alongside Connor – he was able to take the switch in good faith. And despite his recent success, the speedy winger continued to thrive even within new scenery.
“When the coach makes changes, sometimes you have a great line combination and it’s working out for you and something changes,” Ehlers reflected. “That’s just the way it is. When it’s not going for the team, when it’s not going for you and it’s not working, you change it up a little bit. Sometimes it happens during games, sometimes it happens before games. We’re professionals. Most of the guys here have played together at some point. It’s nothing new. We’re not the only ones that do it. So, it’s fun, you get to play with a bunch of different guys throughout the season, you create a lot of chemistry with different guys, and that can help you in the long run, when things aren’t going.”
According to the coach, it was a tip from an old friend from Winnipeg that prompted his decision for the change.
“I’ve liked the structure of our lines, we’ve been a pretty good team,” Maurice said. “Some of it had to do with the match-up from our last game, but some of it has to do with the lines you write out six weeks ago, or two months ago after we get Pierre-Luc back in our line-up. When you get to the end of a really long road trip, your team has played well, and you’ve had a tough loss, sometimes you need something to almost fire up a little interest – if that makes sense. It’s a long grind. One of the old coaches I used to work with, Kevin McCarthy, always said ‘a change is as good as a rest.’”
Hopefully for the Jets, that saying does continue to shine true. With 10 games in the next 18 days, rest will be something Winnipeg desires most. But able to sleep in their own beds – at least for the next week – the Jets should have an added sense of comfort in the confines of their home city.