NHL notebook: Jets flying under Maurice

(Lance Thomson/NHLI/Getty)
February 5, 2014, 11:14 AM

SOCHI, Russia – They have carved an ever-so-slight gap out of the NHL schedule to stage the men’s Olympic hockey tournament, and there is little margin for error as a result. With 150 athletes travelling more than 8,000 km apiece for an event that will include 30 games in a 12-day span, the odds suggest that there will be some logistical issues to contend with.
The first important hurdle to cross is simply getting the players over here.

Ninety-nine Olympians are scheduled to play in NHL games on Saturday and a good portion of them won’t start their journey to Sochi until Sunday morning. That could end up being problematic if a snowstorm hits the New York area as forecasted because three of the league’s four charters are scheduled to leave from Newark, N.J., and many players will rely on commercial planes to get them there for staggered afternoon departures.

You can imagine the ripple effect that would be caused if a bunch of those inbound flights were to be severely delayed or cancelled outright. Suddenly you could wind up with a situation where some jet-lagged players are forced to jump right into an intense tournament without having the chance to practise. Even if things go exactly as planned, the preparation time is virtually non-existent—at least for the teams made up almost entirely of NHL players.

Perhaps the only advantage a country like Slovenia enjoys is that it is already here skating at the Bolshoy Ice Dome and getting settled into the Olympic village (save for L.A. Kings star Anze Kopitar). The KHL players have started to trickle in as well.

It promises to be a whirlwind experience for those coming over from North America, especially if their team ends up playing right through the Feb. 23 gold-medal game. For example, there’s a chance that Team Canada could play seven times in 11 days.

This will truly be more sprint than marathon.

MAGIC MAURICE

The decision to fire Claude Noel as coach of the Winnipeg Jets was not reached easily. In fact, when the axe finally fell last month it made Noel just the second man let go in the 18 years Mark Chipman has run a pro hockey team in the Manitoba capital.

Knowing what they know now, you’d have to think that the Jets management group wishes it had turned the keys over to Paul Maurice sooner.

The Jets are flying under their interim coach with a 9-2-0 record since he was hired. They are now just two points out of wild-card position in the Western Conference and starting to dream a little. To Maurice’s credit, he has quite openly admitted that the most significant change he’s brought about is giving everyone a fresh start.

Having been fired twice himself in the middle of a NHL season, Maurice recognized the stress the team had been under in Noel’s final days. So while he’s made some minor structural tweaks to the way the Jets play, particularly in the defensive end, confidence-building has been his most important undertaking.

“When things aren’t going well the video that you show them is the things that aren’t going well,” he said. “If your team cares—and these guys really do care, they really want to play hard—your confidence has to get shook up. It has to get rocked.”

Needless to say, it has been restored with a string of success in recent weeks. Bryan Little is now on his fifth coach in seven seasons with the Thrashers/Jets organization and credits Maurice for not “trying to change everything.”

“It’s probably smart not making huge changes—that’s tough in mid-season trying to play a whole new system,” Little told me. “You don’t really have a lot of time to practise those anyways.”

Teammate Evander Kane believes that Maurice’s confidence in his own abilities—built over more than 1,000 games behind a NHL bench—has rubbed off positively on the players. “He’s definitely brought a different intensity to the group,” said Kane.

The natural question, of course, is how long the surge will continue. The fact the Jets have even played their way into the playoff conversation with 24 games remaining in the season is an accomplishment in itself, but they’ve obviously got a long way to go to actually qualify.

There is also some uncertainty about how things will evolve long-term for an organization that has always taken the long view. Maurice’s contract only takes him through the end of the season, which gives both sides a chance to evaluate the relationship, and he readily admits that it will take a lot longer than that to truly learn what makes his players tick.

“I’m not there yet, right?” said Maurice. “I’m still in the phase where I’m pulling a guy in every day that it makes sense and (asking): ‘Who are you as a player? Tell me about yourself as a player and your life. What can I expect out of you? When are you good and when are you bad?’ All of those questions that we need to know. Here it’s going to take a while and I probably won’t get to truly understand each individual by the end of the year. It takes time.”

A FEW MORE THINGS

Gary Bettman was looking for a show of hands and no one so much as lifted a finger. The scene was the NHL’s board of governors meeting back in December and the question the commissioner had put to the 30 team owners was how many of them planned to travel to Sochi to watch the Winter Games. Part of that decision-making obviously comes down to logistics and security, sure, but the men who sign the paycheques aren’t nearly as enthusiastic about the global five-ring circus as the players, fans and media. The fact that none of the owners are coming over says pretty much everything you need to know about the likelihood of NHL players returning four years from now in Pyeonchang, South Korea.

Rick Nash was not very confident he would be named to another Team Canada—that much was abundantly clear during a conversation we had a few days before the roster was unveiled. But one person who never bought into that line of thinking was Shane Doan, a past teammate of the six-foot-four winger in a couple international events. “He was an automatic,” said Doan. He then pointed to Nash’s MVP performance at the 2007 IIHF World Hockey Championship as an example of how the big ice suits him. “He plays physical, he plays big, he plays strong, he plays hard, he goes to the net, he’s fast, he’s dominant in the corners—all of the things that on Olympic ice just makes him better.” It also helps that Nash has 11 goals over his last 14 games for the New York Rangers, which helps justify his inclusion even more.

Kevin Dineen is drawing on his vast NHL experience even in his new role as coach of the Canadian women’s Olympic team. Take the recent decision to remove the captaincy from Hayley Wickenheiser and give it to Caroline Ouellette, for example. Asked how Wickenheiser took the news, Dineen replied: “Not great.” At least he could relate. “I had the captaincy taken away from me in Philadelphia when Eric Lindros took over—who was my roommate and one of my best friends—but it’s never an easy thing. You know what, we’re athletes and there’s a lot of pride in that. Not an easy conversation.” Dineen took over a program in transition when Dan Church abruptly resigned in December and felt that some change was needed. “I took my time and made sure that I had a good feel for the team and what I felt would be the best fit for this group of athletes.”

Wickenheiser will still be front and centre during these Games as the Canadian flag-bearer at Friday’s opening ceremony. That promises to make her sixth (and likely) final Olympics a little different than those that came before it. Over the last few weeks, Wickenheiser has received an outpouring of support from all corners of the sporting world, including a text message from Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. His advice? “Wave it high and don’t trip.”

Even at age 40, even after taking a full year off, Tim Thomas remains a pretty good NHL goalie. His .912 save percentage and 15-16-3 record with the lowly Florida Panthers is a testament to that. Thomas also finds himself in a supportive environment, where defenceman Brian Campbell recently bristled when asked about Thomas’s decision to skip a visit to the White House in January 2012 because of his political views—a move that drove a rift between him and other members of the Boston Bruins at the time. “Tim’s very intellectual,” said Campbell. “At least he backs it up (by knowing) what he’s talking about. I like bouncing stuff off of Tim because he knows a lot of things. Anything that you ask, whether it’s about a camera to asking about political questions, he’s just a smart guy and he’s great to know. He’s not loud and obnoxious. He studies things and knows what he’s talking about and he’s strong in his beliefs, which is great I think.”

BARGAIN BOYS

Trivia question: What do Mats Zuccarello and Ryan Johansen have in common? They are currently two unlikely scoring leaders on their NHL teams, with both outperforming several higher-paid teammates in the process. Zuccarello is the 16th-highest paid member of the New York Rangers at $1.15-million while Johansen is still on his entry-level deal and earning less in base salary than 19 Columbus Blue Jackets teammates.

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