February 27, 2020

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Hats off to the wily survivors

Maurice and Cooper NHL's longest-tenured coaches

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice is the second-longest tenured coach in the NHL. The Jets play the longest serving bench boss Thursday, Jon Cooper, when his Tampa Bay Lightning come to town.</p>

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice is the second-longest tenured coach in the NHL. The Jets play the longest serving bench boss Thursday, Jon Cooper, when his Tampa Bay Lightning come to town.

Before the puck drops Friday night at Bell MTS Place, Paul Maurice and Jon Cooper may want to get together for the latest meeting of the mutual admiration society.

After all, not only do they respect each other's work, but they are in rather exclusive company as the NHL's longest-tenured coaches. 

Cooper (March 25, 2013) and Maurice (Jan. 12, 2014) certainly stand out in a league where hirings and firings can be dizzying to keep up with. There have been seven changes already this season, the latest being Gerard Gallant's exodus from Vegas earlier this week. 

In fact, 24 of the league's 31 teams have flipped bench bosses at least once since 2017. 

"Stay low," was Maurice's advice to himself and Cooper when asked about all the turnover Thursday following his team's practice at the downtown rink.

Maurice is in the final year of his contract, although he's repeatedly stated he'd like to remain in Winnipeg. With the Jets at 25-18-4 and pushing for a third straight playoff appearance, you'd suspect the feeling will be mutual from management.

As for Cooper, there were some calls for his head after Tampa Bay won the Presidents' Trophy last campaign as best regular-season team, only to get swept in the first round of the playoffs by Columbus. Those calls grew louder earlier this year when the Lightning got off to a surprisingly slow start, but they've certainly quieted as his club has gone on a red-hot run of late, including winning 10 straight games until a loss in New Jersey on the weekend.

"It's a very painful experience. It's very personal, yet public experience," Maurice said of getting fired, an experience he went through in Toronto and Carolina.

"It's like you're in a marriage, you love the woman, but it's getting a bit rocky. And then you come home one day and she says 'Paul, I'm going in a different direction,' and there's going to be a press conference in three hours to talk about how great the new husband is going to be."

Dirk Shadd / Tampa Bay Times files</p><p>Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper has his squad rolling.</p>

Dirk Shadd / Tampa Bay Times files

Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper has his squad rolling.

Like most observers, Maurice was surprised to see Gallant get his walking papers, just two-and-a-half seasons into what most would view as exemplary work with the expansion Golden Knights, including a Stanley Cup appearance in their debut season. Maurice's good friend Peter DeBoer, who was canned in San Jose last month, takes over for Gallant in Sin City. 

"None of us know, We don't know the relationship with players. We don't know what's going on in the room. Nobody knows," said Maurice.

"When Pete got fired I'm not sad for him, because I know he's gonna... I didn't know it would be 30 days, I thought he would enjoy the month of January. But I knew he's gonna be OK, he's coached a long time in the NHL."

As for the game itself, the Jets will be looking to build on their 4-0 victory on Tuesday night over Vancouver, which snapped a six-game losing streak at home. The Jets will then hit the road for games in Chicago, Carolina and Columbus heading into next weekend's all-star break.

The blue line will once again see changes. Dmitry Kulikov, who missed the Vancouver game with the flu, will return to the lineup. Carl Dahlstrom will come out, having suffered a broken hand in the game. He's expected to miss six weeks.

"He came rolling out of the corner, kind of gapped up on a guy, kind of a partial hit, bump, and his hand just rolled," said Maurice. "It hurts, because you've had to go to the guy a bunch of times and give him the 'Hang in there,' speech (as a healthy scratch). You go through the video of the game and he was given 'er, he was wired in and focused and saw it as an opportunity to kind of show, because he hasn't had a whole lot of opportunity to play here. It's a bit of a heartbreaker, for sure."

Winnipeg is already without Tucker Poolman and Nathan Beaulieu due to injuries, and Dustin Byfuglien due to suspension. The Jets are expected to call up a defenceman or two from the Manitoba Moose before hitting the road, as they only have six healthy skaters at this point in Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Anthony Bitetto, Luca Sbisa, Sami Niku and Kulikov. 

"Just outstanding. Their ability to get off the mat and compete every game," Maurice said of his ever-changing blue line. "We have a really unique group back there right now. And every one of them, actually, has found a way to do what they do really well as their No. 1 thing."

Up front, no changes to the lineup are expected, meaning Gabriel Bourque will be the lone scratch. Connor Hellebuyck is expected to start in goal.

A rested Winnipeg squad will be catching Tampa Bay on a back-to-back, as they played Thursday night in St. Paul against the Minnesota Wild.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
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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.

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Updated on Thursday, January 16, 2020 at 9:22 PM CST: adds photo

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