WINNIPEG — “I’ll tell ya,” began Minnesota head coach Bruce Boudreau last week, in the wake of the Ken Hitchcock firing. “Any good coach has a good goalie. Everyone talks about not doing a good job coaching? You can always look at the goalies who are struggling.”
OK. So that speaks for the St. Louis Blues, whose team save percentage was dead last in the National Hockey League when the axe fell on Hitchcock. (Still is today.)
That same stat has a say in today’s developments out of Boston, where Claude Julien — the longest serving NHL coach at the time of his firing — has watched Tuukka Rask and his band of backups compile an .899, good for 26th in the NHL.
But of course, there is always more to the story.
Rask is only 29, still in his prime as a goalie. Did he suddenly forget how to stop a puck, or did the degree of difficulty on the average shot he faces rise sharply this season?
What of the continued decline of Zdeno Chara’s game? Or the failure to build a blue line around the big guy, and failing of the front office, not the coach? Does a rare off year by Patrice Bergeron not factor into this as well?
There is no better team in hockey with worse goaltending than the Dallas Stars, yet Lindy Ruff manages to hold on to his gig in the Big D.
Clearly, it is never one thing that costs a coach his job. That brings us back here to Winnipeg, where fourth-year head coach Paul Maurice does not have the history of success to fall back on, the way Julien or Hitchcock did.
Folks here are impatient. The Jets are in their sixth season back in Winnipeg and have made the playoffs only once — swept at the hands if the Anaheim Ducks two springs ago.
With the Minnesota Wild in town Tuesday, Winnipeg is further back than Boston — four points and two teams removed from a playoff spot out West. It is a roster with size, speed and potential, with a young superstar in Mark Scheifele (53 points) and Calder Trophy candidate Patrik Laine (23 goals). A playoff miss again this season would require a response — any response — from one of the most patient management teams in the NHL.
But we would ask: Should Maurice be made to pay for a sub-par, inconsistent season from his top blueliner, Dustin Byfuglien? Is it the coach’s fault that management spends $5.75 million on defenceman Toby Enstrom, who has one goal?
And then there is the ultimate coach killer: goaltending.
The Bruins won 3 out of 26 points in games Rask didn't start.
The Bruins shot a league worst 5.97% at 5v5.
That's not on Claude Julien.
— Dimitri Filipovic (@DimFilipovic) February 7, 2017
Coming off a 2011-12 season in which goaltender Ondrej Pavelec posted a mediocre .906 save percentage, Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff committed to the Czech goaler, signing Pavelec to a five-year, $19.5-million deal.
In short, Jets management misplayed its goaltending hand, and with a 25th-ranked .899 team save percentage, that decision may have cost them the 2016-17 season.
Could Cheveldayoff fire Maurice for that? We’ve seen the buck passed in worse ways, like this season where a dysfunctional Florida Panthers organization fired head coach Gerard Gallant in its quest to become some kind of West Point, analytics path blazer.
Maurice has one year left on his contract to coach the Jets, and that’s where things get complicated.
When an organization is married to its coach — read: Chicago and Joel Quenneville — a contract extension would be forthcoming this summer for Maurice. In reality, Maurice is going to have to re-convince many in this city that he can win when given the proper tools.
Cheveldayoff has to figure out his goaltending here to give Maurice a chance to succeed. If that happens — and the Jets are a stable, winning team by Dec. 1, 2017 — I give Maurice his three-year extension.
But the mere presence of names like Julien, Hitchcock and Gallant might accelerate that timeline. Which leaves Maurice in that old, familiar spot of NHL coaches.
The goaltending might not be his fault. But alas, it is his problem.