RALEIGH — Paul Maurice doesn’t live every second worrying about job security. That’s just how it is when you have coached more than 1,000 games in the National Hockey League.
With his Carolina Hurricanes off to a rotten start this season, there have been rumours that Maurice could become the second coach this season to lose his job, following in the footsteps of Davis Payne of the St. Louis Blues.
“Your fear of being fired kind of leaves you as you get to my age and with my experience,” Maurice told sportsnet.ca. “It’s all about trying to get your team to play to its potential — that’s what I worry about.”
In recent days, Maurice has experienced the agony and the ecstasy that comes with the position. Last Wednesday the Hurricanes visited Montreal and played, without question, their worst game of the season losing 4-0. Two nights later they lost again, this time 1-0 to the Buffalo Sabres, but Maurice was pleasantly surprised and pleased with their performance. It is the wild swings in their play that drives the coach nuts.
“Right from the opening shift in Montreal we were dragging our butts and then when we got in trouble, our game opened up to the point where the last 10 minutes of the second period was the worst bit of hockey I may have ever seen,” Maurice said.
“What was really uncomfortable was we didn’t seem interested in going to a place where we could stop the bleeding; we just kept wounding ourselves over and over again. I was really pleased we were able to turn things around and get our focus for the game in Buffalo.”
Asked how the abrupt change in his team’s play affects him, Maurice offered a lighthearted, “The guy who was behind our bench in Montreal should be tarred and feathered and the guy who was behind our bench in Buffalo should get a contract extension. Neither is likely to happen.”
It is going to take more than close defeats to stop the talk about the Hurricanes making a coaching change. Certainly Sunday afternoon’s 3-2 win over the visiting Toronto Maple Leafs is a step in the right direction. But what went wrong in Montreal and what was the difference in Buffalo?
“In Montreal it just looked like we were 19 players playing 19 different games,” Maurice said. “We weren’t giving anybody a chance to be good. It was just such an individual game. Our game against Buffalo was the exact opposite; we went out with one idea to accomplish one thing and we were successful in doing that.”
Prior to beating the Pittsburgh Penguins Nov. 12, the Hurricanes had dropped four in a row and since then they lost three straight before edging the Leafs. Amazingly though, they aren’t out of it where a playoff position is concerned. Certainly not as out of it as, say, the Columbus Blue Jackets who trailed the division-leading Chicago Blackhawks by 17 points Sunday and were 11 points back of their nearest competition in the Central Division, the Detroit Red Wings. Carolina was just six points out of first place in its division after the win against the Leafs.
“Don’t say that too loud around here,” Maurice joked, taking a little shot at the local media that has been hard on him and the team. “If any of that positive light gets in it might become contagious. This is an example of this NHL now more than ever. You’re never that far out. It used to be that you could pick the two or three teams that were clearly in a rebuilding mode each year. I mean, the New York Islanders were one of the best teams in the NHL last season down the stretch and so were we and so were the Toronto Maple Leafs. There aren’t any easy games and we’ve been saying that for a while now.
“As brutal as we have been the past two weeks, we’re two weeks away from feeling pretty good about ourselves. The point is you have to have a reason to believe that is going to happen and the Buffalo game gave us that belief and that reason. We’re at a point where we have to replicate that game over and over for the next two weeks to have that sense and that belief.
“There are nights you come off the ice when you have it going and you’re not quite sure how you won the game. We got ourselves to the point where we knew exactly how we were losing games and we needed to fix that.”
Prior to their meeting with the Maple Leafs, the Hurricanes ranked 14th at home and 14th on the road. Cam Ward is generally regarded as one of the best young goaltenders in the NHL having won the Stanley Cup and the Conn Smyth Trophy as playoff MVP, but the Hurricanes rank 29th in team defence. Ward played superbly against the Leafs was a big reason why his team won.
Further, young superstar Eric Staal was playing uncharacteristically poorly with just four goals and 10 points in 21 games and — get this — he was minus-16.
Staal has to be the team’s biggest concern. He has not scored in his past four games and he has just one in his last 14. Surely the loss of linemate Erik Cole, who signed with the Canadiens as an unrestricted free agent, can’t be the sole reason why Staal has gone cold, can it? Staal had two assists and was plus-2 against Toronto.
At the end of the day, Maurice’s best friend just happens to be the team’s GM, Jim Rutherford. That doesn’t mean he’s safe forever, because Rutherford let him go once already. But if the Hurricanes can show quick signs of improvement, there’s no reason to believe Maurice has anything to worry about.
Not that he’s worried.