The lingering question of whether Paul Maurice would be the man to lead the Winnipeg Jets after this season was answered Wednesday as the team announced they had agreed to terms with their head coach on a multi-year extension.
Re-upping the bench boss — who was widely believed to be on the last year of his contract — is the right move for the organization for a number of reasons.
Maurice is Experienced
Maurice’s resume is certainly nothing to sneeze at — his NHL head coaching career has spanned two-and-a-half decades and began in 1995-96 with the Hartford Whalers when he was just 28 years old. Twenty-five years later, he’s amassed a 724-643-99-21 record and has stood behind the bench for 1,587 NHL games. He’s sixth all-time in games coached, seventh all-time in wins, and the second-longest tenured head coach behind the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Jon Cooper.
Those nearly 1,600 games include 503 with the Jets, with whom he’s in his sixth full season. Maurice first took the role midway through the 2013-14 campaign, when it became clear Claude Noel was not the coach to lead the then-nascent franchise into the promised land.
“Hiring Paul Maurice is something that we feel very good about as far as the opportunity that we have to hire an experienced National Hockey League coach to come in here and begin putting his stamp on the team, and also on the evaluation process that we’re all going to be going through,” general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff — who was in the process of patiently stocking up a franchise’s cupboards that were completely empty when he inherited it — said at the time.
Maurice and Cheveldayoff have certainly put that stamp on the Jets since then as the team owns a 264-186-53 record in the Maurice era. They’ve finished above .500 five times during his tenure and qualified for the postseason thrice, advancing all the way to the Western Conference Final two seasons ago.
Maurice is Widely Respected
At the time of his hiring, Cheveldayoff praised Maurice as “extremely professional, extremely prepared, extremely knowledgeable about the game, and a guy that is very direct in one-on-one with his people and his players.” Not much has changed since 2014.
“We have been blessed by the coaching of Paul Maurice,” True North Sports & Entertainment chairman Mark Chipman said at the Jets’ Hall of Fame Luncheon, where he announced the extension.
It’s clear Maurice, who demands much of his players but never tries to embarrass or bully them, has garnered great respect due to both his approach to the game and ability to relate to his players on an interpersonal level.
The Jets certainly have their issues in 2019-20, but Maurice is not to blame for them; the fact the team is still competing for a playoff spot is rather remarkable. Maurice has done the absolutely best he could with a pretty rotten hand — injury after injury to key personnel, Cheveldayoff’s inability to address glaring defensive deficiencies in a timely matter last summer, and the whole Dustin Byfuglien leave-of-absence saga — and it’s hard to argue any other coach could have done any better.
“His record speaks for itself. Obviously, I’d go through a brick wall for the guy. I don’t want to play for anyone else. That’s where I stand,” captain Blake Wheeler said last spring after the Jets’ disappointing first-round exit to the St. Louis Blues.
It looks as though the rest of the players would do the very same as Wheeler. Through all the adversity, Maurice has never lost the room. Win or lose, the Jets max out on effort every single night.
Maurice has also cultivated a good rapport with Winnipeg media which — in hockey-crazed town where the puck is the end-all-be-all for many — scrutinizes every decision and aspect of the team.
His frankness and forthcomingness show he understands and respects the role media members play. Though he can be crusty and curmudgeonly at times, he does not abuse them or childishly refuse to answer questions.
He’s provided many memorable moments and sound bytes thanks to his dry wit and patience; just two examples are his reaction after being asked “who’s the daddy” — Patrik Laine or Aleksander Barkov — by a Finnish reporter during the 2018 Global Series in Helsinki and his analogy comparing coaching to marriage after being asked to comment on numerous coach firings in January.
“You come home one day and she says ‘Paul, we’re going in a different direction and there’s going to be a press conference in three hours and we’re going to talk about how great the new husband is going to be,’” Maurice said to big laughs.
Maurice Has Grown and Evolved with the Game
Maurice is respected for good reason: he’s a dedicated and hard-working man and mentor, having overseen the development of Connor Hellebuyck, Nikolaj Ehlers, Josh Morrissey, Mark Scheifele, among others, on the path from young prospects to established stars. He’s now going to have the chance to oversee Mason Appleton, David Gustafsson, Jansen Harkins, Ville Heinola, and Sami Niku on that same path.
In a year that’s seen the burgeoning of the NHL’s #MeToo movement — one in which many coaches have been fired, suspended, or called out for bullying, physical and verbal abuse, and off-ice misconduct — Maurice’s integrity and tactics have never been questioned.
The NHL is much different than it was when Maurice got his first back in the mid-1990s: his longevity can be attributed to his willingness to evolve and change his coaching style in lockstep with the game. Now 53 years old, He has abandoned the stern, callous demeanour that characterized 1990s-era coaches such as “Iron” Mike Keenan and Mark Crawford — a demeanour Maurice himself tried to cultivate earlier in his career — in favour of a more positive, personal approach.
“In the time of the NHL, aside from the style of hockey change, the biggest change is what the players need when they come in,” Maurice said while chatting with Mitchell Clinton about his extension. “That individual communication and group messaging has to be very clear. They want it, they want that kind of direction. We work hard at it.”
“When I came into the league, I think half the team was older than I was. Now I’m about the age of their parents – and their parents are younger than me. You do need to change the way you talk to people and the way you interact with them. That’s all part of the great challenge of being in this league.”
Paul Maurice on his evolving approach as a coach
Just after former NHLer Akim Aliu came out with allegations that former Calgary Flames’ head coach Bill Peters directed racial slurs at him when they were both members of the Rockford IceHogs, Maurice reflected on how cultivating positive relationships with players is key to coaching in today’s NHL.
“If I’m going to give anybody credit, I will give the assistant coaches credit for kind of pushing me to evolve, to be more understanding, maybe, of young players,” Maurice said. “More caring, possibly. There’ll be a whole bunch of guys that say I haven’t hit that threshold yet.”
“Blake Wheeler grabs me a year and a half ago and says, ‘Just be nice to the guy’ — and I got a list of about 14 reasons why I shouldn’t be, right, because of his play. But that stuck with me. The game has changed…” he continued. “Those interactions have to change. When I first started you would handle a man a whole lot differently then you would handle a player now.”
Maurice All-In on Winnipeg
It’s no secret attracting quality people to a market like Winnipeg isn’t easy. It’s not sunny and warm like Sunrise; it’s not glitzy and glamorous like New York. Nonetheless, Maurice has come to love life in the cold prairie city.
“Priority one is you have a family and you want them to enjoy their lives as well. Winnipeg has given us so much more than we’ve given the city,” Maurice told Clinton. “For my kids, their friends, my wife as well, this is truly our home now.”
“I might have had to leave possibly to go work somewhere else but my family is staying here. This is home for us,” he said in a sit down with Global News.
That’s long been Maurice’s message. When he dispelled rumours in December that he was in talks to become the Seattle NHL franchise’s first coach, he said “I’m here as long as Mark and Kevin want me to be here. This is home for me. I love this place. I’m not looking to go anywhere. It’ll be kicking and screaming on the way out, that’ll be how that transition happens.”
Letting go of someone of Maurice’s calibre who wants to be in Winnipeg would be foolish and short-sighted. While many fans called for the coach’s ouster during the Jets’ pre All-Star Break losing streak and many on social media were upset upon seeing the Wednesday’s news, Maurice’s job was never in jeopardy — the process to extend him actually started in the offseason.
“I think this is the fourth contract we’ve done with the Jets. The combined negotiating time might be ten minutes, it was that quick,” Maurice told Global.
While the Jets have taken a step back this season and need to reload, they don’t need to rebuild. They look poised to be more competitive in near the future as much of the core that makes up any Cup contender is already in place, Kyle Connor, Ehlers, Hellebuyck, Morrissey, Scheifele, and Wheeler have all been inked long term.
Better days for the defence are on the horizon with many promising prospects in the pipeline. Changing course on the cusp of better things and hiring someone with less experienced and less understanding of what makes the Jets a unique franchise would make little sense.
“The challenges with this team, the possibilities as well — it’s such as a good young team — I enjoy working here. The people I work with, the people that I work for, make it very meaningful,” Maurice said.
Maurice is the right man to tackle these challenges head-on, and thanks to this extension, he’ll get the chance to do just that.
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