There will come a time when Paul Maurice is no longer the right man for the job. But a surprising first-round playoff sweep of the Edmonton Oilers should silence critics and prove there’s still some shelf life left for the veteran head coach of the Winnipeg Jets.
Just 54, Maurice has been around longer than most. This is his 23rd year as an NHL head coach and eighth straight with True North, which makes him the second-most tenured bench boss behind current Stanley Cup champion Jon Cooper. The product of Sault Ste. Marie is fourth in all-time games, trailing Scotty Bowman, Joel Quenneville and Barry Trotz, having passed other legends such as Al Arbour, Ken Hitchcock, Dick Irvin, Pat Quinn and Mike Keenan.
That’s impressive company. But as his Jets limped towards the finish-line of the 56-game campaign, questions were rightfully being asked about Maurice’s job security going forward. Was he nearing the inevitable best before date that all coaches, even the best, have? Had his message grown stale? Was he capable of making the necessary adjustments to get his team back on track, or was stubbornness getting in the way?
The knives were out. And they were quickly being sharpened.
"There’s not much time left to get it figured out," I wrote in this space back on May 4, after Maurice’s troops had just lost a seventh straight game in regulation, getting outscored 28-10 in the process. "The Jets are spiralling out-of-control and look to be easy first-round playoff fodder for one of Edmonton or Toronto. If this ends with a predictable crash landing, it will be time for the organization to pull the chute and find a fresh voice to lead this skilled but flawed squad going forward."
That aged well, didn’t it?
It wasn’t simply that Winnipeg quickly dispatched of heavily-favoured Edmonton, but how they did it after dropping seven of nine head-to-head meetings in the regular-season. Just as Connor Hellebuyck outplayed Mike Smith in goal and the Jets impressive forward depth overpowered the Oilers, the battle behind the bench turned out to be pretty one-sided as well. Maurice outcoached his counterpart, Dave Tippett. By a considerable margin.
He found a way to keep Edmonton’s dynamic duo in check, getting the Adam Lowry line out against Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl as much as possible, both on the road and at home. Tippett made that easier by putting the pair together after Game 1 and not splitting them up. That allowed Winnipeg’s top two scoring lines to get much more favourable match-ups.
Maurice also moved Dylan DeMelo up to the top pair to play with Josh Morrissey, finally giving up on having Tucker Poolman in that role. That was one of the main points of my column earlier this month, questioning why he had yet to show that hand.
Better late than never. DeMelo-Morrissey were terrific against the Oilers, giving the Jets a strong top four along with the reliable Neal Pionk-Derek Forbort pairing. Maurice also kept impressive rookie Logan Stanley in the lineup, something that didn’t look like it was going to happen a month ago when he kept auditioning journeyman Jordie Benn in that role. Stanley passed his first postseason test with flying colours, and that third-pairing with Poolman proved to be a handful for the Oilers.
Another big adjustment was using his second power play unit a lot more. The forward group of Pierre-Luc Dubois, Nikolaj Ehlers, Mathieu Perreault and Andrew Copp, along with Pionk on the blue-line, came through with several big goals, including a pair in last Sunday’s epic 5-4 overtime victory that gave the Jets a 3-0 series lead.
The top unit, with Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Blake Wheeler, Paul Stastny and Morrissey, can get far too predictable at times, and make it easier to defend when they are out for nearly the entire two-minute man advantage. But, to Maurice’s credit, he actually started PP2 at times, and it paid off in spades.
Finally, there’s no question he’s got this group working together, washing away the stink of the late-season slide and doing whatever it takes to win this time of year. They stepped up the physical play, blocked an incredible amount of shots and are clearly all pulling in the same direction. All for one, one for all.
"I’ve said this since day one. They’ve been unbelievable," Stastny, who has played more than 1,000 games in this league, told me Friday when I asked him to assess the job Maurice and his staff did in the first round.
"They know what to say when we’re winning games, they know what to say when we’re in slumps. You guys don’t see the stuff behind closed doors. I’ve had some good coaches and I’ve had some bad coaches. You appreciate when you get them."
Stastny spoke of the "calming presence" that Maurice brings, which was no small thing when the club was taking on water, and fast, down the stretch. Having 1,656 regular-season games under his belt, and another 88 in playoffs, no doubt helps. As does being able to look around his room and see so many of the same core faces that have been through plenty of battles before.
Maurice discussed the value of both individual and shared experience when I asked him about it following his team’s practice at Bell MTS Place, likening it to a tight-knit family environment which is something the organization certainly values.
"As you get older, you learn to enjoy the special moments more. I’m not this old, but go watch a two-year-old’s birthday and watch the grandparents. They’re the happiest people in the room. It’s the greatest thing ever," said Maurice.
"When you get a little older and you spend some time in the game, yeah there is lots of pressure, but if there is anything that I’ve brought to the team this year that is different from years past is a real desire — and I think this is related to the pandemic and all these things — that we need to enjoy it. I’m not talking about being casual about it, or ‘let’s see who wins tonight, who cares?’ I’m talking about really, truly appreciating the work that went in to get us here."
Critics of Maurice will point to two other significant numbers attached to his name — 670, as in losses, the most in NHL regular-season history (Trotz, Lindy Ruff, Arbour, Bowman and Quenneville are next on the list). And zero, as in the number of Cups he’s won, when everyone else in the top six of all-time games coached has at least one.
He can’t do anything to change the former, and he’ll continue adding to his own record the longer he stays in the game. But his ultimate goal is to do something about the latter. Every spring represents a clean slate, and Maurice and his troops are clearly relishing this one, especially when so many — including yours truly -- were ready to write them off. Now, for the second time in his Winnipeg tenure, they’ll be down to one of just eight teams left in the hunt for Lord Stanley.
"I’ve got a special appreciation for this group because I think making the playoffs was a lot bigger challenge than maybe you think," Maurice said of a year like no other, which included playing all 28 road games outside their own time zone and facing added scrutiny being in an all-Canadian division.
"You have a bunch of guys who have been in the league a long time and now we really appreciate it. I hope we’re imparting that to the players. The idea that being in the playoffs is special. It has to be enjoyed. If it can’t, what’s the hell is the point of this job? If you can’t enjoy playoff hockey, where do you get your joy from your job?"
It was only recently that people were wondering how close we were getting to a changing of the guard. Now, many questions have been answered. And it turns out this "old dog," at least by NHL longevity standards, is very much capable of learning some new tricks.
As a result, Maurice has earned a longer leash.
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.