Time running out for Maurice Early playoff exit by Jets could be end of the line for coach

Paul Maurice says he's not worried about losing his job. But the veteran Winnipeg Jets coach should be feeling plenty of pressure as a once-promising season has taken a dramatic nose-dive.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/05/2021 (515 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Paul Maurice says he’s not worried about losing his job. But the veteran Winnipeg Jets coach should be feeling plenty of pressure as a once-promising season has taken a dramatic nose-dive.

Seven straight regulation defeats by a combined score of 28-10 represents the longest free-fall of his tenure, one that would have plenty of general managers around the NHL experiencing motion sickness and reaching for the “eject” button.

Montreal’s Claude Julien was canned earlier this season after three consecutive losses, the last two in overtime and a shootout to Ottawa. Heck, Calgary’s Geoff Ward was sent packing in March after a win against the Senators.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Paul Maurice should be feeling plenty of pressure as a once-promising season has taken a dramatic nose-dive.

What to make of Maurice’s fragile crew? They didn’t exactly come out guns-a-blazing on Monday night in the nation’s capital, mustering all of six shots against Ottawa in the opening frame, giving up a shorthanded goal, fighting back to tie it midway through the final frame only to blow it with 73 seconds left in regulation, the result of some ugly play in their own end that has been all-too-common.

Where was the urgency? Where was the resiliency? Maurice’s main task is to get the most out of his troops, to motivate them and put them in the best positions to succeed. In a bottom-line, results-oriented “what have you done for me lately” business that can be cold and cruel, he is currently failing in those key areas.

You can’t fire the entire team, even though the players deserve their share of blame for the recent woes. But you can certainly change the person in charge.

There’s no question that would be happening around here if Lou Lamoriello was Winnipeg’s general manager. Back in April 2007, with three games left in the regular-season, Lamoriello axed Julien as coach of the New Jersey Devils. At the time, the club was second-overall in the Eastern Conference, but Lamoriello apparently didn’t like what he was seeing and took the reins the rest of the way.

I’d be shocked if Kevin Cheveldayoff makes an immediate move for a 27-21-3 outfit that still has a 10-point cushion on a playoff spot with only five regular-season games left on the schedule heading into Wednesday night’s game in Calgary. Like the True North organization itself, he’s as loyal and patient as they come. But these are starting to become desperate times, and you wonder how close we are to seeing some desperate measures?

There have been several recent head-scratching decisions that go simply beyond the win-loss record.

Look, Maurice didn’t suddenly forget how to coach. There’s no question he has plenty of valuable qualities, which is how he’s climbed to fourth all-time in games coached with 1,651 regular-season games and counting. But all bench bosses have a shelf life, and it’s fair to wonder if we’ve finally reached that point. Now in his eighth season in Winnipeg, every team but current Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay have made at least one switch since Maurice took over for Claude Noel in January 2014.

There have been several recent head-scratching decisions that go simply beyond the win-loss record. And reinforcing the notion Maurice is set in his ways, often to a fault, even if he denied being stubborn earlier this week other than when it comes to his favourite hot dog condiments (mustard, onions, pickles, no ketchup).

Maurice continues to play Tucker Poolman with Josh Morrissey, when it’s clear that just isn’t working. Why Dylan DeMelo, the team’s best defensive defenceman in my eyes, remains stuck on the third pairing is a mystery to me. Morrissey-DeMelo were terrific late last season but haven’t even been given a chance this year.

Maurice spoke of a competition on the blue line, inserted 20-year-old Ville Heinola for a single game (a 5-2 victory in Toronto), then took him out for the last seven, which have all been losses. Instead, it’s been mostly journeyman Jordie Benn, with a bit of Logan Stanley (who’s been impressive) shuffled in. Derek Forbort looks like he could desperately use a rest. Why not try both Stanley and Heinola in the lineup for a game or two?

This, after Cheveldayoff himself suggested following the trade deadline the Jets might have some internal prospects just waiting for an opportunity to shine, leading to speculation they may not always be on the same philosophical page.

The team’s No. 1 centre hasn’t been sparked by a high-profile benching 10 days ago on Hockey Night In Canada, and his angry words after the fact disagreeing with Maurice’s decision and using it as motivation going forward have rung hollow, so far.

Earlier in the year, with Blake Wheeler clearly nowhere close to 100 per cent, Maurice continued to lean heavily on the captain with predictably negative results. Maurice also keeps going back to the same dry well by putting Wheeler with Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor, even though the underlying numbers show that line routinely gets caved in defensively. They were great during the 2018 run to the Western Conference final, no doubt. But times have changed, specifically Wheeler’s impact.

Connor, with no points in his past five games and a horrific minus-nine rating, looks lost. Scheifele, with just a single goal in that span, does as well. The team’s No. 1 centre hasn’t been sparked by a high-profile benching 10 days ago on Hockey Night In Canada, and his angry words after the fact disagreeing with Maurice’s decision and using it as motivation going forward have rung hollow, so far.

Hellebuyck hasn’t looked right, either, since being given the hook by Maurice a couple weeks ago after getting lit up for three goals on six shots in half a period against Toronto. Like Scheifele, the Vezina Trophy winner also expressed his displeasure at the move.

Maurice has yet to find a way to get Pierre-Luc Dubois going. The 22-year-old, who has bounced all over with different linemates, has just one assist in his last seven games. He has been held without a point in 23 of his 36 games with the Jets since being acquired in the mid-January blockbuster with Columbus.

Just last week, with the Jets down a goal to Edmonton, Maurice had his fourth-line on the ice with less than three minutes to play. With the benefit of final change as the home team, he also chose to have the likes of Nate Thompson on the ice at the same time as Connor McDavid, who has owned Winnipeg this season.

The Jets are spiralling out-of-control and look to be easy first-round playoff fodder for one of Edmonton or Toronto.

And what to make of the fact Winnipeg has a superior record on the road (16-10-1) than they do at home (11-11-2)? That tells me Maurice is often over-thinking some of these match-ups.

The above could be given a pass if the team was still enjoying success. But much of that had to do with Hellebuyck’s stellar play in net and the ability of the elite forwards to finish on their chances, which masked a lot of existing issues now bubbling to the surface. Things have gone south in a hurry. And there’s not much time left to get it figured out. The Jets are spiralling out-of-control and look to be easy first-round playoff fodder for one of Edmonton or Toronto.

If this ends with a predictable crash landing, it will be time for the organization to pull the chute and find a fresh voice to lead this skilled but flawed squad going forward.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

John Woods / The Canadian Press Now in his eighth season in Winnipeg, every team but current Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay have made at least one switch since Maurice took over for Claude Noel in January 2014.
MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Just last week, with the Jets down a goal to Edmonton, Maurice had his fourth-line on the ice with less than three minutes to play.
Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

History

Updated on Tuesday, May 4, 2021 8:05 PM CDT: Fixes type.

Updated on Wednesday, May 5, 2021 6:49 AM CDT: Corrects spelling of reins

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