Paul Maurice knows how to pick his spots, a trait not lost on a perfectionist such as Connor Hellebuyck, who doesn't require reminding after a poor performance between the pipes.
Therein lines one of the strengths of Winnipeg's head coach, says the Jets' starting goaltender.
"He's built a form of accountability in this locker room, which a team needs to have," Hellebuyck said Thursday. "He's got an approach that guys respect. He'll get on guys when the time is right and leave them alone when he knows that they already know.
"He treats his players as individuals, and that tells me he knows what he's doing. He understands his people."
Maurice has been a constant behind the Jets bench for six years and that won't change any time soon. The 53-year-old from Sault St. Marie, Ont., who got his NHL coaching start with the Hartford Whalers in 1995, had a couple of tours in Carolina, worked in the hockey fishbowl that is Toronto and even spent time in Russia, agreed to a contract extension — reportedly a three-year deal — to remain in the Manitoba capital.
It's a massive vote of confidence for a coach that guided the Jets to the Western Conference final two seasons ago, only to see the squad check out of the playoffs in the first round last season. And it's been a rather uneven 2019-20 season — on and off the ice — for the Central Division team (29-24-5), which sits a point below the playoff line.
Yet, Maurice said it's the only job in hockey he wants, and has faith he can still get the most out of the team.
"That's inherent in the enthusiasm you get from the belief you can win," said Maurice following Thursday's morning practice. "There’s a driver there that when you come out and have a 10-day block where I really like the way we played and as hard as we’ve played, your faith builds in that and you get the enthusiasm. As the coach starts to get some years in... that gets you out of bed every morning. And with this group, you’re excited about it.
"As a coach, you have to be able to grow and evolve and change with your group as it changes around you, and we would have gone through the major change that you find is when an organization gets very young and builds through that. Certainly, we all have our principles and our beliefs in the game, but you have to be able to add things to your game, to change the way you view players, to evolve. That’s the word, that’s the most important thing."
"He's built a form of accountability in this locker room, which a team needs to have. He's got an approach that guys respect. He'll get on guys when the time is right and leave them alone when he knows that they already know." – Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck
Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said he hasn't wavered in his belief Maurice continues to be the appropriate man for the job.
High-profile NHL coaches Gerard Gallant, Peter DeBoer and Peter Laviolette have already received their walking papers this season. But a similar move wasn't contemplated in Winnipeg, even as the Jets limped through a 5-12-2 stretch from Dec. 17 to the end of January.
"As far as shaking things up, you’re constantly evaluating the roster. This isn’t an industry that really gets fixed by knee-jerk reactions or by just appeasing the moment and saying, ‘You know what, let’s just do this.’ Because again you really pay the price... you might get some instant relief or instant gratification from different areas but I really do believe when you make a knee-jerk reaction, you really open yourself up to long-term problems," said Cheveldayoff. "You can look at pure numbers and if you want to make your judgments on pure numbers, sometimes those can sway you one way or another. I don’t think in situations like this it can be just a pure-numbers type of decision."
Indeed, the numbers alone work against Maurice. The Jets are fourth in the Central, their power play is 17th in the league (19.3 per cent) and the penalty-killing unit is 29th (74.8 per cent).
This season has been, perhaps, Maurice's most challenging with the departure of free agents such as Ben Chiarot, Tyler Myers and Brandon Tanev, Dustin Byfuglien's sudden departure right before training camp, and a parade of skaters to sick bay.
Cheveldayoff has never lost confidence in Maurice, who has led the Jets to a 264-186-53 regular-season record and has put his stamp on the team since he replaced Claude Noel behind the bench. During his tenure, he's been tasked with shepherding a team with an abundance of talented youngsters and helping shape them into more complete players.
"There has to be a lot of feel because you are dealing with individual players, you’re dealing with a position that is tasked with taking a collective group of players and making them better as a group and also helping them grow as individuals," said the Jets GM. "That’s basically the coach’s job. It’s that ability that the coaching staff has shown that they’re able and certainly willing and embracing each and every day to help this group get better and help each individual get better along the way."
The Jets brass has plenty of company in the Paul Maurice Fan Club, judging by what the men in the locker room had to say after practice.
"It's awesome. He's the only coach I've had in the NHL and gave me an opportunity to play. I'm just super happy for him, it's well deserved and I'm excited to have him as our coach going forward," said blue-liner Josh Morrissey. "He's a great motivator. Maybe one of his biggest strengths is he understands players are going to be good some days, bad some days, and you need to manage that. I think we’ve won a lot of games based on that confidence coming from him."
Added forward Patrik Laine: "He's been really good with me and I was happy to hear the news, and I think everyone in this room agrees. He's a great coach and he knows what he's doing," said Laine. "He told me right away as an 18-year-old, he's not going to show me too much video, he's not going to tell me how to play offence. He's going to let me figure it out on my own. He let me make mistakes and not get benched every time."
Maurice said contract talks began last summer but were shelved as the pressing matters of the on-ice product took over. When discussions resumed recently, barely any time elapsed between proposal and handshakes.
"Kevin told me what they were thinking, I told them what I was thinking, they made me an offer and I accepted it. I think this is the fourth contract. The entire negotiating time for the last four contracts has been about 10 minutes, in truth," he said. "They’ve always been very fair to me and I’m exceptionally happy here. So, it’s a good fit."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).
Updated on Thursday, February 13, 2020 at 6:23 PM CST: Adds photos