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Opinion

You were saying something about blame, coach?

Usually unassailable Maurice no longer beyond reproach for team’s slide

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/2/2016 (1361 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/2/2016 (1361 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

What if the problem isn’t just with the players? What if the problem isn’t just with the GM?

What if the problem underlying the frustrating enigma that is the 2015-16 Winnipeg Jets is also with the head coach?

Paul Maurice’s unhinged behaviour Thursday night in Tampa — he was penalized for berating an official and later ejected from the game — made for great TV and resonated in a Jets Nation that has long believed NHL officials unfairly pick on the local team.

In a season in which the Jets are 29th in the 30-team NHL in penalties, it just felt good for many fans to watch a red-faced Maurice unrelentingly tie into referee Francois St. Laurent.

And the fact Maurice’s first penalty put the Jets on a two-man disadvantage? Or that his second led to them playing the entire third period without their head coach in a 6-5 shootout loss?

Well hey, lots of things that feel good are bad for you.

Plus, let’s face it — this team has taken so many selfish and undisciplined penalties this season it barely even registers as an outrage anymore.

But it’s one thing when some knucklehead on the Jets’ fourth line — or, for that matter, the club’s minutes-leading defenceman — takes a retaliation penalty in the offensive zone that puts your team behind the eight ball.

It is quite another, however, when the offender is the one guy in this whole equation who is supposed to be the grown-up, the one man Thursday night who was supposed to be keeping his head even as all others were losing theirs, including — almost literally — Bryan Little.

But if you were expecting contrition from Maurice after the game, you were looking in the wrong place. In a season in which Maurice has repeatedly expressed his frustration with the way his players continue night after night to take selfish penalties, the coach offered no regrets for taking two of his own, attributing his behaviour to a need to stand up for his players when the referees wouldn’t.

Left unsaid was how Maurice thought putting his team down two men in the first instance and without their coach in the second instance was helping his players. I’d argue the Jets’ ensuing third-period comeback that salvaged a point came despite Maurice’s behaviour, not because of it.

It was all very illuminating, in a way. One of the most puzzling questions about this Jets team all season has been — why does a club that has one of the worst penalty-killing units in the NHL continue to make things worse by taking so many penalties?

The answer, we learned Thursday, begins at the top.

And so, too, I’d submit, do some other problems on this team. It’s been puzzling to me how in a season in which the fan base has grown increasingly vocal about their frustration with the players and, in particular, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, Maurice has continued — at least until now — to fly mostly under the radar, still as unassailable in the minds of many as he was that day in January 2013 the Jets hired him.

Maurice has a .511 career winning percentage in the NHL as a head coach, and his teams have missed the playoffs a lot more times (10) than they’ve made the playoffs (6).

But any suggestion of any shortcomings on the part of Maurice in this town is asking for trouble — and generally met with the blanket defence that what he has been given to work with in Winnipeg is substandard.

In the immortal words of former Winnipeg Blue Bombers coach Tim Burke: "You can’t win the Kentucky Derby with a mule."

Mule

Maybe. But maybe this team isn’t a mule. I saw a painstaking study this week that a local actuary/Jets fan did — he asked me to keep his name out of it — in which he tried to quantify exactly how much the Jets’ cellar-dwelling penalty-killing (25th) and power-play (27th) units have cost the team this year.

What the study found was the Jets would be seventh and in a playoff spot in the Western Conference today if points in the standings were determined strictly by their even-strength play this season.

Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice yells toward the officials during the second periodagainst the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday in Tampa, Fla.

MIKE CARLSON / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice yells toward the officials during the second periodagainst the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday in Tampa, Fla.

Instead, thanks to a 17-goal power-play deficit (power-play goals for minus power-play goals against), the Jets find themselves in 12th in the Western Conference heading into the weekend in what is increasingly looking like a lost season.

The point is this: if the Jets are skilled enough and talented enough at even strength to be competitive, doesn’t that suggest Maurice has the horses he needs to be a playoff team? Doesn’t that also mean at least some of the blame for his team’s woeful special teams rests directly with the head coach?

I couldn’t get a straight answer this week on who is actually in charge of the Jets’ special teams. There was a time when assistant coaches Pascal Vincent quarterbacked the power play and Charlie Huddy co-ordinated the penalty kill.

But the best I could get from the Jets when I asked this week is Maurice is in charge of everything.

Maybe that’s just a case of Maurice insulating his assistants from criticism. Or maybe it’s actually true.

Either way, what Maurice is doing this season isn’t working. And it’s not just on special teams, either.

Consider this week’s bag skate in Tampa. Frustrated by his team’s woeful work ethic in a loss in Carolina Tuesday, Maurice had his team skate around in circles Wednesday.

There was talk afterward from Maurice about sending a message and the higher level of play required after the all-star break and a bunch of other platitudes.

But what I saw in that bag skate is the same thing I see whenever I see a parent spanking a child — someone who has run out of ideas.

Look, it’s not like Maurice suddenly got dumb. He is easily the smartest man in the room any time he walks into the press room, although that’s a low bar.

And let’s be honest — I have no idea if he should be using an umbrella or a raincoat on the power play. And neither do you.

Plus, it’s very easy to sit here at a keyboard and wonder why it took Maurice so long to put Blake Wheeler and Nikolaj Ehlers on the same line or move Dustin Byfuglien to the front of the net on power plays. And what the heck was he thinking putting two right-handed shots together on the blue-line?

Shrinks call it cognitive biases. This week, the Globe and Mail’s Sean Gordon identified at least three types — hindsight, anchoring and confirmation — in all the shrill calls coming from the Montreal media right now to fire both the embattled Habs head coach and GM.

But it’s also true there’s at least one other person in this town who thinks the head coach is to blame for the Jets’ struggles this season.

Maurice had this to say a couple of weeks ago when asked on whose desk the buck stops.

"I am fully in charge," Maurice deadpanned, "of all things broken."

That’s absurd, of course. There is plenty of blame to go around — and at every level of the Jets organization — for the big step backwards this team has taken this season. The guy selling popcorn on the 300 level of the MTS Centre gets to sleep soundly. Everyone else gets a mirror and a long, hard look.

But do the blameworthy include the once-unimpeachable Maurice? He obviously thinks so.

And who am I to argue.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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History

Updated on Friday, February 19, 2016 at 8:12 PM CST: Updated with print copy.

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