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This article was published 21/5/2019 (517 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It was the type of glowing performance review we'd all love to receive. And it should have quickly put to rest any thoughts the Winnipeg Jets would look to move on from coach Paul Maurice.
"I'd go through a brick wall for the guy," captain Blake Wheeler said last month, just days after his team was quickly eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs in the opening round.
As painful as that sounds, Wheeler's public stamp of approval for Maurice was no small thing for a franchise left searching for answers after falling well short of lofty expectations this past season. He was clearly sending a message to both fans and management, one that carries plenty of weight given Wheeler's status.
"I think any time you don’t win, you get fingers pointed. I would say you point the first one at me. It’s my job to get this team kind of to that next level. The coach isn’t on the ice, the players are on the ice. We’re the ones that are accountable. One of the most winningest coaches of all time in the history of this game. So, I think his record speaks for itself," said Wheeler.
"I don’t want to play for anyone else. That’s where I stand."
So, that's settled then, right? Not so fast.
Wheeler may disagree, but it says here Maurice must take plenty of blame following the type of season that should have his job security under review. And there were enough tough nights at the office to raise legitimate concerns about whether Maurice has passed the "best before" date with this talented, but under-achieving group.
In the NHL, you only get so many chances to get it right. And after 5 1/2 seasons with the Jets, you wonder how many more Maurice should have.
Consider this: since Maurice was hired Jan. 12, 2014, every NHL team except Tampa Bay has replaced its coach. Some clubs have made multiple moves. That makes Maurice the longest-tenured leader aside from Jon Cooper (March 25, 2013), who just led his Lightning to one of the greatest regular-seasons in NHL history, only to have many calling for his head after the team was swept in the first round by Columbus.
Nobody said life was fair. But in a results-oriented business, the buck typically stops with the man behind the bench. Even the best and brightest eventually get fired, as acts grow thin and messages eventually start falling on deaf ears.
Are we starting to see signs of that happening here in Winnipeg?
Yes, the Jets had a great start to the year, seemingly picking up where they left off after the franchise-best 2017-18 season, which included a 52-20-10 record and winning two playoff rounds before bowing out in the Western Conference final to Vegas.
But as things began going south following Christmas, Maurice seemingly didn't have the answers to get things back on track as the team finished with 15 less points than last season (47-30-5), lost its grip on first place and fell to the surging St. Louis Blues in six games, including a complete no-show in the decisive loss.
Goalie Connor Hellebuyck played too much and appeared to tire down the stretch. Same goes for Wheeler and No. 1 centre Mark Scheifele, who faded badly and yet were always kept together. The penalty kill sprung a leak. The power play became predictable and much less effective. Team chemistry and unity appeared to be a mess.
You get the picture. And it wasn't pretty, carrying over into the playoffs. That's led to plenty of vocal fans — and critics — suggesting that "Mo Must Go." (There's even a Twitter hashtag, because of course there is).
As his captain was quick to point out, there's no denying Maurice has some impressive staying power. He sits sixth overall in games coached and seventh overall, with 695 regular-season wins despite being just 52 years old. He trails only Scotty Bowman, Joel Quenneville, Ken Hitchcock, Barry Trotz, Al Arbour and Lindy Ruff in that department.
Of course, Wheeler neglected to mention that Maurice is No. 1 in another category — losses. He has 619 of them thus far.
Maurice has spent 21 years at the helm of an NHL team. Two of those involved him getting fired mid-season, another 12 ended without a playoff appearance, four included a first-round playoff exit, two were third-round playoff exits, and one (2001-02) was a Stanley Cup final defeat.
Of the five coaches ahead of him in games coached, all have won at least one Stanley Cup. Of the six ahead of him in wins, only Ruff has yet to sip from hockey's holy grail.
And you have to go all the way down to 22nd in regular-season games coached — Dave Tippett — to find someone who has fewer than Maurice's 80 career playoff games. His record in those games is just 36-44.
All of which should be a concern for a team such as the Jets, who are in win-now mode, spending to near the salary cap and making the kind of moves at the trade deadline (two straight years of dealing the first-round pick plus more for help) that speak to the urgency of the situation.
The window of opportunity isn't going to stay open forever. And given the financial challenges facing general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff this summer, there's an argument to be made that the best chance may have already passed.
Maurice is intelligent, charismatic and one of the great talkers in the game. It's clear many players respect him, especially some veterans like Wheeler. But he can also be stubborn and, perhaps, loyal to a fault, especially when it comes to lineup decisions and player deployment. No doubt it's rubbed some young players the wrong way at times, from Nic Petan to Kristian Vesalainen to Jack Roslovic to Sami Niku, just to name a few.
True North, led by Mark Chipman, has also proven to be extremely loyal over the years, which is why a change following two straight playoff appearances would be unlikely even without Wheeler's endorsement. At this point, adding a new assistant or two to the staff would be a more likely move. (It's worth noting both defence coach Charlie Huddy and goalie coach Wade Flaherty were original hires in 2011 along with then-coach Claude Noel).
Maurice is believed to have two more years left on his current deal. Like every member of the organization, you hope he is taking some time this off-season to reflect on what went wrong and what needs to change. And, just like his players, Maurice is going to have to be better going forward. The status quo won't cut it. Another step back would be a disaster.
No, Maurice's seat may not be red-hot just yet. But given what is at stake, it should at least be warming up.
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