Without question, Paul Maurice made the Winnipeg Jets a better team

Paul Maurice explains to the media why he has decided to step down as the head coach of the Winnipeg Jets.

WINNIPEG - Few NHL head coaches are given the choice to willingly turn in the keys before they are snatched out of their respective hands.

Paul Maurice knows better than anyone that coaching changes usually are imposed on the person exiting the facility, not encouraged or even initiated by that individual.

And based on how Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff handled two direct questions about whether or not Maurice’s job might have already been in jeopardy were he not to tender his resignation on Thursday night and have the official announcement come on Friday, a skeptic might say that Maurice simply chose not to delay the inevitable.

But to say this was simply a you-can’t-fire-me-I-quit situation isn’t entirely accurate either.

Sure, the seat was getting warmer with the Jets’ recent performance, though if Cheveldayoff was going to fire Maurice immediately, he would have done so after Tuesday’s uninspired 4-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres.

Maurice wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to shuffle the line deck and continue to search for solutions and put his team through the paces during those two days between games.

That point is now moot, as Maurice’s Jets tenure has come to a close after exactly 600 regular-season games and an additional 39 during the Stanley Cup playoffs.

If you listened closely enough to Maurice as he spoke eloquently during his 23-minute farewell address to members of the media, there were a lot of emotions for the 54-year-old to sort through.

“Sometimes, when you take over a team and it’s kind of like you’re starting at the bottom of a mountain and you’re pushing a rock up to the top, you can only get it to a certain place. That’s where I feel I’m at,” said Maurice. “And if you would allow me some arrogance; I would say, I am better positioned than anyone to know that they need a new voice. They haven’t quit on me. They’re a good bunch of men. My relationship is strong with all of them, and I’m cheering for them, I am.

“But when you have a 26-year professional hockey coaching career, you know, they need a new voice. They need somebody to get to that next place. It doesn’t need to be more experienced, necessarily, a more talented guy, it needs to be a different voice because it’s the right time for it and I know that.”

You don’t gain that level of perspective without having a can tied to you on more than one occasion.

“It no longer becomes a personal failure. When you get fired, that's the way you take it,” said Maurice, asked if those previous firings allowed him to be comfortable with this difficult personal decision. “And then you look around and watch everybody else going down too, and then you understand it's part of the job. There is a shelf life for what we do. The only way that shelf life gets extended is if you win championships. You need to win.

“And over a period of time, what I'm proud of is it wasn't an off-the-cliff moment where the team just went right into the tank and quit playing. None of my teams have ever done that.”

As for the legacy of the outgoing coach, it’s both complicated in nature and easy to define.

In so many ways, Maurice must be praised for his ability to change the culture around the team and organization after taking over from Claude Noel in January 2014.

Maurice got the 2.0 version of the Jets to the playoffs for the first time in 2015, but that team was promptly swept by the Anaheim Ducks, despite holding a lead in each of those first three games.

He was there to continue as the steward when the Jets brought in many top prospects and incorporated talented young players into the fold.

By the time those players were starting to blossom, the Jets entered what appeared to be a golden age, battling the Nashville Predators for top spot in the NHL during the 2018-18 season, finishing second overall and delivering a franchise-best for victories (52) and points (114).

That led to a number of additional firsts: first playoff win, first playoff series win, a first trip to the Western Conference final.

That’s where the joyride came to an end, with a 4-1 series loss to the Vegas Golden Knights, who pulled off the upset before falling to the Washington Capitals.

It was impossible not to remember how Maurice was quick to grasp the enormity of the situation, saying after the exit interviews that while many saw this as just the beginning of the journey, it would be difficult to get back to that point.

Truer words have never been spoken, though they were never intended to be as ominous as they ultimately became.

And that was before he found out Dustin Byfuglien would be walking off into the sunset unexpectedly just over one season later, on the eve of training camp, no less.

Despite challenging for top spot in the Central Division in 2018-19, the Jets never truly got back to being an elite team in the seasons since that trip to the Western Conference final.

Heck, they only won one playoff series – the sweep of the Edmonton Oilers in the opening round last season – since that time.

They were promptly swept by the Montreal Canadiens in Round 2.

Given how wide the window of contention was believed to be open for the Jets back in 2017-18, that is the area that will be viewed as a disappointment.

By the time Maurice came to the conclusion that it was time to exit the stage, he got the sense he had taken this group as far as he could.

No, there is no evidence of his players tuning him out or quitting on him. But maybe they weren’t quite as attentive as they might have been earlier on.

To borrow the words of Cheveldayoff, the players were still listening to him but maybe they just weren’t hearing him the same way.

“It’s not that we got too comfortable. We didn’t know how to be uncomfortable anymore,” said Jets forward Andrew Copp. “When you’re uncomfortable, sometimes that makes you perform that much better. It gets you out of your comfort zone and makes you push to new limits, push yourself harder than you knew you could, that sort of thing. I don’t necessarily have a full opinion on whether I completely agree or completely disagree with that. I think there is something to be said that sometimes when guys are uncomfortable, it brings out the best.”

For Maurice himself, he gave the matter of his future and whether or not he was the guy to put this group over the top considerable thought during the offseason, admitting that playing games in front of empty arenas during the pandemic had taken its toll.

After seeing Cheveldayoff upgrade the personnel, Maurice was rejuvenated and wanted to give it another shot.

With the Jets off to a 9-3-3 start, there was no shortage of passion, but these past several weeks as the Jets slipped below the Western Conference playoff line had taken an emotional toll.

Frustration was evident and the answers were getting tougher to find, even if he continued to put in the work required to search for them.

“If you lose some of that passion for the game, that love for the game, you can still be good, but you can’t be as good as you should be or could be,” said Maurice. “And that’s how I feel I am.”

No one is going to suggest that Maurice didn’t make any mistakes during his tenure.

It’s impossible to not be left with regrets when an organization doesn’t get to the top of the mountain under your guidance.

Whether it was his deployment and reliance on certain players, the departure of Patrik Laine in the blockbuster trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets or his occasional reliance on veterans, those types of things will always be hotly debated by a fervent fan base.

Maurice was also at the helm during the impressive progression of many players on the roster, whether homegrown talents or those brought in via free agency or trade.

On Friday morning, Maurice sounded like someone who needed a break, a time to decompress and a window to recharge his batteries.

He’s a hockey lifer and though his mind might allow him to be successful in a management or advisory role, his biggest passion is for coaching – whether that’s in the teaching or trying to bring out the best in those around him.

And while he wasn’t ready to commit to stepping behind the bench again somewhere down the road, the glint in his eye told you he certainly isn’t opposed to it – once the time is right, of course.

“I don't know the answer to that. I don't,” said Maurice. “I would tell you that you're a performer, just like the player. And you have to be at your best. And I'm a pretty honest critique of my performance. I am. Maybe sometimes a little too critical with it, but I'm honest with myself. And the only way I would step back again is if I felt I could be even better than I was before. And that's not today.”

That’s a topic for another day.

Maurice has been around the game long enough and had enough experiences throughout his time in the NHL, the American Hockey League and even the Kontinental Hockey League to provide thoughtful analysis, should he want to go back to working in television.

For now, it’s time to unplug and spend some time with his family.

He can watch the game without having to worry about job security or whether or not his team is underperforming or not meeting expectations.

Given his meticulous nature, Maurice is likely to go through a lengthy self-evaluation and put himself in a place where his fire and passion for coaching returns.

He’ll have a long list of things he did well and other things that he’ll identify the need to learn from in his next challenge.

While the Jets are moving on and handing the job to Dave Lowry for the remainder of the season on an interim basis, you can’t fully look into the future before you recognize the past.

The one thing that can’t be disputed is that Paul Maurice is leaving the Winnipeg Jets organization in a better place than when he arrived on an interim tag himself.

Short of capturing a championship, that’s one of the highest compliments someone can be given when evaluating his time at the wheel of this franchise.

“I think I understood the Jets where they were at, the team, the city, and I was able to embrace that and be part of that. I think I pushed that rock pretty far up that mountain and I am pretty comfortable where I handed that off.

“I want the best for them. And I want the best for me too, and that’s why we are here today.”

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