Why a recharged Paul Maurice is the perfect coach for Panthers

Florida Panthers head coach Paul Maurice speaks on how much he has enjoyed his season, and how his team has made it easy to have fun, even in high-pressure situations.

LAS VEGAS – During a 12-minute press conference on Sunday, Paul Maurice devoted four minutes to answering a single question.

The query was a byproduct of Florida Panthers veteran Eric Staal’s simple but powerful observation at Stanley Cup Final media day on Friday that: “This group needed Paul and Paul needed this group.”

Staal, 38, first played for Maurice 20 years ago in Carolina, so has known his head coach for most of the forward’s adult life.

Maurice shocked the National Hockey League a week before Christmas in 2021 by abruptly resigning from the Winnipeg Jets after more than eight seasons. Maurice, who felt unable to transform the Jets into the team he wanted, said when he quit: “They need a new voice. They need somebody to help them get to that next place.”

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He was so burned out by nearly three decades coaching in the NHL that Maurice did not watch a game on television for months before Florida general manager Bill Zito called him last June.

This is the coach the Panthers needed and, according to Staal, the coach who needed these players.

And what does Maurice think about that?

“I have enjoyed this year as much as any, and in some ways more than I ever thought you could enjoy as a coach,” he said, already 150 words into an answer that stretched to almost a thousand. “I came into this league at a time when you just growled (as a coach) all the time, right? It’s 28 years ago. You’ve all been around, you’ve seen the culture shift and how people interact — coaches and players. It’s completely different. But you bring a little bit of that (growling) with you when you’re trying to take a team that hasn’t made the playoffs in a long time.

“You are grinding. Like, you’re growling a little bit. This was a different animal because this is so much fun. If you watch our game last night, we made some mistakes. If you’ve watched us play, we’ll make some mistakes. But they play hard, right? Matthew turns that one over and I’m not saying a word to him about it because he’s worked his butt off, and produced and been great.”

Matthew Tkachuk, the Hart Trophy finalist and Maurice’s best player, had a ghastly turnover in his own zone Saturday that led to Mark Stone’s clinching goal in the Vegas Golden Knights’ 5-2 victory in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Tkachuk, by the way, is also the Panthers leader who did not take his eyes off Maurice when the 56-year-old coach “lost my mind” – his words – in an epic rant behind the bench during a March 29 game in Toronto.

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It was, uh, a little more than growling. Maurice actually stopped at one point to re-fill his lungs, then bellowed some more at players before exhausting himself, pocketing his glasses and leaning over to calm himself – or keep from passing out.

The Panthers, whose 5-4 loss in Vegas on Jan. 12 had them a game below .500 with three months remaining in the regular season, rallied to beat the Maple Leafs 3-2 and then won their next five games to surge into the Eastern Conference’s final playoff spot.

They finished 42-32-8, three points worse than the next lowest team among the 16 playoff qualifiers. But the Panthers were dangerous.

Until they lost Saturday at T-Mobile Arena, where it was Tkachuk losing his mind on the ice in the third period, the Panthers were 11-1 in their previous 12 playoff games and had punted from the Stanley Cup tournament heavily favoured teams in the Boston Bruins, Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes.

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Back to Maurice: “You can only push an athlete so hard, but if they don’t want to go any harder, that’s all you’re getting. Some guys get real good at looking like they’re going fast up and down the ice and they’re really skating now, coach. These guys worked so hard, so they make coming to the rink fun. My staff, too. I’ve got eight guys that I work with. You call them assistant coaches (but) that’s not right. There’s just eight coaches in the room. We talk hockey all day and we laugh and we have fun. But we work hard. So the one, maybe underlying thing that you don’t know, is that none of this is casual.

“So I’m up here and I’m light-hearted because it was a game and it was played last night, and why do I gotta be in a bad mood today just because we lost the game? That also doesn’t do my team any bit of good, to be growling up here or sending messages. It’s not what that group needs from me. It’s not how I want to operate.

“But these guys have made it fun for me because they allow the coaches to laugh, and they did it because they worked so damn hard. And they went through hard things, and they treat each other in a wonderful way.”

We would just transcribe the entire Maurice answer except that would require a shared byline on this column.

“It’s been a great two-way street,” Staal said, explaining the relationship between Panther players and their coach. “Even from afar, watching him coach over a number of years, I think he’s really adapted to the way the game is played. I think he’s very smart. He understands not only the game but players and people and how to articulate what he’s trying to do.

“I think he’s been, like I said, great for this group, but also vice-versa. This group’s been good for him. It’s a good energy in our locker-room and . . . I feel he’s enjoyed everything that we’ve gone through. And I know he’s going to enjoy this chance here in the Finals.”

Did we say this is Paul Maurice’s first Stanley Cup Final since 2002? After 28 years and 817 wins (and to be fair, more losses than any coach in NHL history — 850, including OTLs), this is the closest Maurice has been to winning a championship since Carolina lost in five games to Scotty Bowman’s Detroit Red Wings 21 years ago.

“I think there’s a lot of trust there,” Florida centre Sam Reinhart said Sunday. “You guys see it; there’s so much confidence in the way he conducts himself and when he speaks, there’s so much passion. I think the players sensed that right from the beginning. We’ve got all the confidence in the world in him and, you know, I think it’s mutual, it goes both ways. So we appreciate that as well.”

Maurice left the Jets because he no longer recognized his team, which means he probably no longer recognized himself, either.

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He has found himself in South Florida. He got his passion back, and a team he is proud of.

The Panthers saved him as a coach and he, in turn, has brought an organization that had won one playoff series in 25 years to the Stanley Cup Final.

“They chirp each other in a wonderful way,” Maurice said near the end of his sermon of self-reflection.  “The art of chirping on the ice is, really, it’s a dying art. Some of those guys were awesome back in the day, right? Really good. They researched you (for) really good stuff. They put time into it. But these guys are pretty funny and you get a glimpse of it.

“It’s been an incredibly fun year. And I think the quiet undercurrent here is we’ve worked really, really hard to make it fun.”

Then he paused briefly and corrected himself.

“That’s not the right way to say that,” he said. “We’ve worked really, really hard to allow it to be fun.”

The answer was all heart. Maurice never lost that.

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