January 22, 2018

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Opinion

Maurice moves to the good side of average as Jets soar in first half

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Winnipeg Jets' head coach Paul Maurice on the bench while playing the Dallas Stars' during second period NHL action in Dallas, Monday, November 6, 2017.</p>

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Jets' head coach Paul Maurice on the bench while playing the Dallas Stars' during second period NHL action in Dallas, Monday, November 6, 2017.

If the Winnipeg Jets continue to roll along at their current pace they’ll shatter their franchise record 99-point regular season performance from the 2014-15 season.

The head coach that year was current bench boss Paul Maurice, yet Winnipeg fans have remained divided on whether he’s a good, bad or average National Hockey League coach.

The Jets two poor seasons since that post-season rush have helped fuel the discussion.

For me, the top coaches get their rating by guiding a team to many winning seasons, establishing optimal control of a team. They need their clubs to spend more time in the offensive zone than their opponents do and can’t be depending on incredible goaltending or puck luck.

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If the Winnipeg Jets continue to roll along at their current pace they’ll shatter their franchise record 99-point regular season performance from the 2014-15 season.

The head coach that year was current bench boss Paul Maurice, yet Winnipeg fans have remained divided on whether he’s a good, bad or average National Hockey League coach.

The Jets two poor seasons since that post-season rush have helped fuel the discussion.

For me, the top coaches get their rating by guiding a team to many winning seasons, establishing optimal control of a team. They need their clubs to spend more time in the offensive zone than their opponents do and can’t be depending on incredible goaltending or puck luck.

Winning a couple of Stanley Cups can get them in, but producing teams that win consistently, over the long term, and doing it the right way can still put a coach in my top category — even without winning a Cup.

But today isn’t about the "good" and "bad" coaches — I’m looking at Maurice and his average (in my opinion) spot in the conversation. Where he goes from here will have significant impact on the Jets' future.

He’s lost more games than anyone in NHL history. With a record of slightly above .500 he’s won a lot too, but his overall numbers are mediocre.

He’s made five trips to the playoffs in 19 attempts. That’s why he’s not in the "good" group of coaches.

I chose the Jets to be a playoff team even while acknowledging Maurice’s limitations, because I consider more than 20 other coaches to be in his group, as well. Most nights, the competition between coaches is even.

However, I also felt it was imperative that the Jets' coach improve his game, which I was critical of last season. He never had a good handle on that club, unless you count seven meaningless wins at the end of the season.

So how much of this year’s success should be attributed to coaching? After stumbling out of the gate and going 0-2, the team has responded in an impressive way. Goaltender Connor Hellebuyck was the key early, as he stole games when the Jets weren’t playing well, masking their inefficiencies.

I can’t give the coach credit for that, after Hellebuyck went outside the organization to improve his game last summer.

Maurice’s initial answer of collapsing all five skaters to the net resulted in the Jets spending too much time in their defensive zone. My hope was that Hellebuyck could hold the fort while the system grew, as well as the players within it.

That growth has been excellent as the Jets became a team that started spending huge amounts of time in the opposition zone, pounding pucks at the net and becoming a legitimately good hockey club.

Players are sticking to their systems and a couple of bad bounces don’t see them stray from their roles anymore. That’s got a lot to do with maturity, but they are buying in to what Maurice is saying.

Special teams have made a huge improvement over last year’s poor performances and, since I believe these can be significantly helped by coaching, this is another feather in the coach’s cap.

The power play now has two effective units, moving from 18th overall last year to second in the league going into Thursday’s games.

The penalty killing is currently 16th after finishing 26th last year.

The Jets sit in the top five in penalties for and against, a bit of a wash there.

Add up the improving numbers and Maurice has done a good job over half a season.

The coach’s player deployment seems be the main theme of those who believe Maurice has inherited a great bunch of players, but they should be even better than they are.

When Marko Dano comes out of the press box and scores a couple of goals the noise grows louder. While it’s not proof the Jets would have more points, it furthers speculation for some people.

Maurice has recently given me hope that he’s on his way to ridding himself of his old habit of favouring certain players over others, despite their effectiveness.

His insertion of Jack Roslovic into the lineup against the San Jose Sharks and Buffalo Sabres was due to injury and the young Manitoba Moose star performed admirably. However, Maurice also chose him as a key piece when Winnipeg was protecting a late lead against San Jose. To show that type of trust in the speedy, talented and smart rookie was a step forward in the coach’s thinking.

This followed Dustin Byfuglien sitting out the last few minutes while Winnipeg protected a 4-3 lead against Buffalo. The coach trusting other players more was important, as at times in the past it’s seemed the big defenceman was immune from Maurice’s critical thinking.

While I’m a big Byfuglien fan, he wasn’t doing what he’s done well for most of the year — playing with restraint. This was a good reminder.

Decisions like that one are the type that can help average coaches turn into good ones if they become habitual. These need to become consistent over a long period of time, and it’ll be up to Maurice to keep improving.

He has a powerful group of players at his disposal, with good depth and goaltending. This young team is built to be successful for a number of years.

The time has come to see whether old dogs can continue to learn new tricks.

Chosen ninth overall by the NHL's St. Louis Blues and first overall by the WHA's Houston Aeros in 1977, Scott Campbell has now been drafted by the Winnipeg Free Press to play a new style of game.

Twitter: @NHL_Campbell

Read more by Scott Campbell.

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