Could the winds of change be blowing when it comes to the Winnipeg Jets and head coach Paul Maurice?
At first blush, it seems like a silly question to ask and even more ludicrous to consider, especially with the team off to a surprisingly strong start to a season many expected to be filled with peril. You could easily make the argument this is among the finest work of Maurice’s lengthy coaching career, guiding a team that underwent a major off-season makeover to a 19-11-2 record.
Sure, much could change with 50 games remaining on the docket, including some tough opponents on the horizon. And yes, some of the underlying numbers suggest their lofty status may not be sustainable, especially if Connor Hellebuyck comes down to Earth just a bit. Show me a good coach and I’ll show you a good goalie, as the old saying goes.
But in a "what have you done for me lately" business, the returns have certainly been impressive. And the notoriously stubborn Maurice has shown he is open to change, implementing tweaks to the offensive and defensive systems which better suit the existing roster.
All good signs, for sure. Keep it up, and a Jack Adams nomination at the end of the season is not out of the question. And yet, here we are, with speculation starting to swirl about Maurice’s long-term future with the club.
For starters, it’s been reported by NHL insider Elliotte Friedman that Maurice is in the final year of his contract. The Jets, for the record, won’t confirm or deny that, telling me on Friday it’s the organization’s policy not to comment on those types of matters. Friedman is as connected as they come, so I have no reason to doubt the validity of his claim.
We know Maurice was given a "multi-year" extension prior to the 2017-18 season, coming off the original contract he signed when he joined the team in the middle of the 2013-14 season. In asking around, the widespread belief was that it was for three years, which would take us to the conclusion of this season.
In any case, it’s rather curious that an extension hasn’t been announced, especially with the recent body of work. After all, Maurice guided the Jets to several franchise records in 2017-18, including a trip to the Western Conference final. He followed that up last year with another playoff appearance, albeit one in which they started strong, faded down the stretch and ended with a first-round exit to the eventual Stanley Cup championship St. Louis Blues.
Still, add in this year’s start and Maurice has coached the Jets to a sparkling 118-61-17 regular-season record since he last put his name to paper. Getting Maurice out of lame-duck status and locked up for the foreseeable future would seem to be a no-brainer move by the organization.
Which takes us to another intriguing part of this story.
Friedman, on his 31 Thoughts podcast this week, dropped a bombshell in reporting a potential link between Maurice and the still-to-be-named Seattle expansion team, set to begin play in the 2021-22 season. Friedman was asked by co-host Jeff Marek when to expect some news about the organizational structure, including naming a head coach.
"I’ll tell you this, I’ve got some guys who think it’s going to be Paul Maurice," said Friedman, who later admitted the juicy scuttlebutt he’s been hearing was likely going to "throw some gasoline on the fire."
No kidding. Could the delay in getting Maurice extended be less about Winnipeg’s desire to take a wait-and-see approach — which, at this point, wouldn’t make much sense — and more about the 52-year-old wanting to hold off and perhaps eventually test the waters?
Ron Francis was named general manager of the franchise last summer, and there are all kinds of connections between him and Maurice. The final six years of Francis’s playing career were with the Carolina Hurricanes, with Maurice as his coach. Francis later served as associate coach to Maurice in Carolina for two seasons. Maurice speaks as highly of Francis as anyone in the hockey world, and the feelings are definitely mutual.
Throw in the fact Seattle will want to make a big splash in the market, and bringing in the seventh all-time winningest coach in NHL history might just qualify. Especially one as charismatic as Maurice, who helps sell the game every time he speaks.
Stability. Continuity. Loyalty. These have been the hallmarks of True North since the NHL returned to Winnipeg in 2011. While other organizations have made a habit of pushing the panic button whenever things go wrong, the Jets subscribe to the theory that slow and steady will ultimately win the race.
That’s certainly the case when it comes to the coach. They gave their AHL leader in Claude Noel a chance to shine on a bigger stage, only pulling the plug and bringing in Maurice after 31/2 years, despite plenty of evidence it wasn’t working.
Now in his sixth full season, Maurice trails only Tampa’s Jon Cooper for longevity with his current club. Consider that five NHL teams have already pulled the plug on their head coaches this season — and that there have been a dozen new coaches since the end of last season — and you get a sense of just how rare it is to have staying power in this league.
Maurice seems to be the exception to the rule. Like any leader, he has his share of faults. He can be hard on young players, and overreliant on certain veterans in the past who were long past their prime. But players such as Jets captain Blake "I’d go through a wall for him" Wheeler swear by Maurice, and there’s no evidence to suggest his message has gotten stale. Quite the contrary, in fact.
All of which should have both Maurice and the Jets eager to continue what’s been a very beneficial relationship. And yet, here we are.
Until, or unless, a new deal gets announced, the questions about their future together are only going to get louder.
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.
Updated on Friday, December 13, 2019 at 8:44 PM CST: Fixes typo.