WINNIPEG – There was a certain calmness to Paul Maurice as he surveyed the room and dug in for the first formal question and answer period inside Canada Life Centre since he made that fateful decision just over a year ago, when he stepped down as head coach of the Winnipeg Jets.
Being in front of a microphone was always a place Maurice felt comfortable during his tenure which spanned roughly eight years since he took over on an interim basis from Claude Noel in January of 2014.
This session wasn’t about soundbites, though there were several that stood out.
It was more about sentimentality for time spent in a place that left an impression on both Maurice and his entire family.
It was also about admitting one regret.
If Maurice had a mulligan, it turns out he would have used it to step down during the offseason, rather than hand in his resignation in mid-December when things were coming apart at the seams.
“I’d have got off the bench in the summer prior. To be honest, if I was going to go do something different, it would be that,” said Maurice, who went on to expand on why he felt that way after a quick exhale. “Because you can see it. I mean, I was in a very unique position to see it. I could see it in the summer. You run eight, nine years, and we’d gone from winning a playoff game to banging out 114 points on the year and you’ve kind of hit that crest, and then it was time.”
To say this was a surprising revelation would be incorrect, though it’s an important one – even with the benefit of hindsight on his side.
Maurice himself conceded previously that the thought had crossed his mind, but that he was rejuvenated by the trades Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff made to acquire Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt to upgrade a defence corps that had been in flux over the previous two seasons.
But the Jets weren’t responding to Maurice the way they used to, even after a 9-3-3 start.
That’s why he decided to step away from a job he had invested so much time and energy into.
That didn’t mean he stopped paying attention to what was happening with the Jets.
He actually kept close tabs on the Jets’ coaching search and gave a glowing endorsement of his eventual full-time successor.
“I think there were probably two or three names. And I followed it. And Rick would be one of them,” said Maurice. “Someone that does a really good job at getting down to the, pardon the pun, the bones of it. To get to the structure of it, the skeleton of fixing some basic things and getting a real simple kind of mindset in all three zones. Real consistent game.
“I think he did that in Dallas as well. Bit of a defensive bent on it. Got a real, real good goaltender here, so structured right. When Dallas was kind of rolling with their goaltending, too, it’s kind of very similar.”
Even after taking some time to unplug, Maurice wasn’t sure he would get behind an NHL bench again – at least not until he received a phone call around June 10 from an area code he didn’t recognize.
“I think I had four incredible days at the lake. And was driving home with my wife on a Monday and my phone rang in my car. I didn’t know the number,” said Maurice. “Usually I don’t answer numbers that I don’t know. Telemarketing. I had no relationship with (Panthers GM) Bill (Zito). It was ‘What are you interested in?’ So a bunch of unusual little things happened.
“I talked to other teams, it just wasn’t a fit there, I was comfortable with where I was at. But I had a really in-depth meeting (with Zito) and conversation over four or five days, maybe even longer than that. And I was excited about the idea of what they’re trying to do. All of their pieces are not that far off. They had a good year, they’ve struggled a little bit maybe kind of getting to that next level, but I think the best hockey for this franchise is ahead of them.”
Veteran Jets right-winger Blake Wheeler has long been a staunch supporter of Maurice and he reiterated some of those beliefs on Tuesday morning.
“This franchise had never been to the playoffs before Paul was here. We had a couple of playoff series victories, and those are big stepping stones for a franchise that hadn’t won anything,” said Wheeler. “He helped instill a culture where we expected to win. We definitely came close one time and had opportunities. That’s all you can ask for.”
Maurice has surely heard former players like Mark Scheifele and others talk about the impact Rick Bowness is having on a team that’s battling for first place in the Central Division.
He doesn’t take those comments personally and he understands that it comes with the territory.
“I think that’s fairly ubiquitous in each market when there’s a coaching change. And that’s what happened. So it’s good for them,” said Maurice. “They needed a change, they needed a new voice, they got it, they’re playing well. I’m happy for them.”
Maurice certainly had some missteps during his time at the helm, but as mentioned before, he left the organization in a better place when he left than when he arrived.
That’s why the reception is expected to be a warm one whenever the camera catches him behind the Panthers bench along with former Jets associate coach Jamie Kompon.
As for his current lot in life, Maurice is excited by the way the Panthers are playing.
Despite starting the day below the playoff line, the underlying numbers suggest the team is better than the record suggests – which is the opposite of what transpired during parts of his time with the Jets, when Connor Hellebuyck was able to cover up some of the structural flaws.
Nor is Maurice concerned about the pressure that’s attached to taking over a team that won the Presidents’ Trophy last season, but decided to replace interim head coach Andrew Brunette after the team was ousted by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round last season.
The Panthers made a blockbuster deal in the offseason, bringing in Matthew Tkachuk from the Calgary Flames while moving out top-line winger Jonathan Huberdeau and defenceman MacKenzie Weegar, so the identity of the team has been a work in progress – especially after injuries knocked top players like Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad for extended periods of time.
“So the group that hired me understood exactly this — that this is where we were going to be, this is what we had to fix. So there isn’t any (pressure) from that,” said Maurice. “As a matter of fact, they’re real happy about the way we’re playing. The things that we’ve kind of fixed in our game. Our style. The direction it’s going. The room is great. They work their asses off, they have fun, and they love each other. So in our contingent, none — none in terms of an expectation of keep driving, keep getting better. It’s been a really positive place to work.
“Here’s the funny thing. Won a bunch of games here in Winnipeg but our analytics were just not very good. And our analytics are outstanding in Florida, right? Slot shots, we’re top five in the league in shots for and our wins and losses aren’t where we want them to be. But there’s a lot of truth to our game. Our game’s pretty good. I think we’ve found a fairly decent balance in terms of being able to score on what we generate, and for the most part, been a pretty solid defensive team.”
A day earlier, Bruce Cassidy returned to face the Boston Bruins at TD Garden for the first time since taking over as the head coach of the Vegas Golden Knights in what was a scene that saw him get a bit choked up as his contributions were recognized.
Maurice wasn’t about to dismiss the emotional component of what would unfold for him later in the day.
“Oh for sure. It’s a big part of your life. You invest so much into it and you don’t separate the personal and the professional because they always come together, right?” said Maurice. “My kids came here at a young age and they became who they are in Winnipeg. So there’s a connection there. I get to meet a few people while I’m here.
“We’re not long enough to see all the people you care for or you’d like to but for sure, right? And I haven’t seen the players, haven’t run into any of them really over time. I talked to them occasionally, briefly, early on in the summertime, but it’ll be different for sure.”