Paul Maurice is an coach, not a miracle worker.
Yet his job over two months with the Winnipeg Jets makes him seem closer to the latter.
And while the Jets would still need to just about win out to make the playoffs, even having the slightest glimmer of hope is a testament to Maurice, who took over a team that was closer to last place in the Western Conference than a wild-card spot.
“Obviously very impressed,” general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said last week at the NHL general managers meeting in Boca Raton, Fla. “He’s a quality, quality person as we’ve all known. Certainly he came into a difficult situation and has helped our group perform admirably.”
Winnipeg was 10 points out of a playoff spot when Maurice replaced the fired Claude Noel on Jan. 12. An emotional overtime victory against the Colorado Avalanche on Wednesday night got them to within four points.
It was also the Jets’ 13th victory in 24 games under Maurice. Given the spot he started in at 19-23-5 and out of the race, it has been quite the turnaround.
But Maurice’s impressive showing thus far has not come as a shock to one of his former bosses, Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford.
“I’m not surprised. He’s never gotten the credit for the kind of coach he is,” Rutherford said in a recent phone interview. “Even the experience in Toronto where they didn’t make the playoffs for three years, he still had the best record there for a long time of all the guys that went through there until Randy got there. Paul is a very smart guy, he’s a very good coach, and I’m very happy for him because he got into a good situation.”
It was a good situation in the eyes of a few of Maurice’s former players because of his history helping teams overachieve. He helped the Hurricanes to the 2002 Stanley Cup final and then in his second tour of duty there got Carolina to the 2009 Eastern Conference final.
“He’s very good at staying in the present and getting the most out of his players because of his relationships and his ability to communicate with them on a daily basis,” former Hurricanes captain Ron Francis said in a phone interview the day Maurice was hired.
Even with Evander Kane missing time because of injury, Maurice has gotten a lot out of captain Andrew Ladd (nine goals and 11 assists in 24 games) and Dustin Byfuglien (nine and eight in 23).
Maurice certainly had the reputation of maximizing talent from his time with the Hurricanes, though Cheveldayoff said he didn’t have a chance to check in with anyone in Carolina before hiring the 47-year-old Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., native.
Being able to improve the Jets, though, is what Cheveldayoff expected from Maurice.
“That’s what coaches do,” he said. “You ask any coach what they think drives them and excites them is having the ability to have an impact on a group of players. Certainly that’s what I really believe the essence of coaching is. That’s what, obviously, Paul is good at, and I think he’s enjoying the impact that he’s having on our group and I think the group enjoys him.”
If that relationship continues to bear fruit, Maurice could be a long-term coaching solution for a Winnipeg team that will have high expectations next season. Three seasons without a playoff appearance will do that, especially with talent in key places and young players like centre Mark Scheifele and defenceman Jacob Trouba already looking like potential stars.
Scheifele is likely out for the rest of the season with a knee injury, and Maurice knows the final few games aren’t just about now.
“I want to make the playoffs as bad as everybody does, but that doesn’t change the place we are three years from now, five years from now,” he said last week.
The key now is Maurice overseeing this core’s growth and showing that this strong stretch was just a glimpse of what’s to come.
“I like Winnipeg’s team, I like the direction it’s going and they’ve got the right guy there,” Rutherford said. “I don’t think there’s any question that Winnipeg’s got some young players there. I think they’re just going to get better and better.”
With files from Scott Edmonds in Winnipeg.