Maurice embraces pressure

With new staff in place, coach takes new approach

calexander@newsobserver.comOctober 7, 2011 

— Carolina Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice is in the final year of his contract, a situation that seems tenuous at best and perhaps foreboding after the Canes missed the playoffs the past two seasons.

But not to Maurice, who has been on that one-year coaching cliff before.

"This is my fifth time," he said, smiling. "It was always a big year, so I'm looking forward to it.

"I don't think it adds any pressure at all. Sometimes it helps you, believe it or not, in not having too long-term of an approach. You sense the immediacy a little more, rather than saying, 'I'm going to develop this guy for two or three years down the road,' although you still need to do that. No, I've enjoyed that each one of those years."

Maurice, 44, was given a three-year contract after the Hurricanes' run to the Eastern Conference finals in 2009, when Carolina ousted the New Jersey Devils and Boston Bruins in thrilling seven-game series before being swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins. But the Canes were left out of the playoffs the past two years, falling one victory short last season when they lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning 6-2 in the final game.

Maurice still is behind the bench, but there have been changes. Ron Francis has moved back to the front office as director of hockey operations after serving as associate head coach. Tom Rowe, who handled the defensemen the past three seasons, was assigned to the Canes' scouting staff.

The Hurricanes hired Dave Lewis as an assistant to coach the defensemen. Rod Brind'Amour also joined the staff, but the plan - for now, general manager Jim Rutherford said Wednesday - is for the former Canes captain not to travel with the team or be behind the bench in his first year as a coach.

One holdover is assistant coach Tom Barrasso, who also is the Canes' goaltending coach. Barrasso spent much of last season behind the bench and Maurice said he will fill Francis' role of keeping track of line matchups and other game strategy.

"All three have been in high-pressure games and won Stanley Cups and have a great view of the game," Maurice said.

Getting defensive

Soon after last season, when the Canes allowed more shots against than any team in the league, Rutherford said major changes were coming on the back end. He also said he wanted a former NHL defenseman with solid coaching credentials on the staff.

Lewis, 58, met the criteria. He played 16 years in the league on the blue line. He has been an NHL coach since 1988, serving as an assistant for the Detroit Red Wings when they won Stanley Cups in 1997, 1998 and 2002.

"With the resume he's got, the experience as a defenseman, Dave Lewis can really work one on one and teach our defense," Rutherford said. "With that being said, it's going to take some time. But he's going to make a difference. He can take a player who's struggling, break his game down and build it back up."

Lewis described himself as a "slow, defensive defenseman" in his playing days. He said he was always looking to play strong in the defensive zone, make the good first pass and keep it as simple as possible - the things he will want the Canes to do.

But Lewis adds another twist in that he also has been a head coach in the NHL. When legendary coach Scotty Bowman retired from the Red Wings after the 2002 season, Lewis was named his successor and led the Wings to two 48-win seasons.

Lewis later was head coach of the Boston Bruins for a season before being fired.

A new think tank

Maurice has been fired twice - once by the Hurricanes, in December 2003. He coached the Toronto Maple Leafs for two years before being released in May 2008, returning to coach the Canes again in December 2008 when Peter Laviolette was fired by Carolina.

Maurice said it won't be the first time he has had a former head coach on his staff. Tom Webster was an assistant under Maurice with the Hartford Whalers (1996-1997) and Hurricanes (1997-1999) after stints as head coach of the New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings.

"He had a good (won-loss) percentage and went to the conference finals," Maurice said.

But Maurice said being in the final year of his contract and having someone like Lewis on the bench won't be a distraction or create win-or-else pressure to get the Canes off to a strong start.

"I don't feel like that and it doesn't feel like that," Maurice said. "I was pretty excited about bringing Dave in and I'm looking forward to it."

Rutherford and Maurice are friends off the ice as well as having a boss-and-coach relationship. But Rutherford won't speculate on Maurice's job security as the new season begins.

"We don't talk about it, think about it," Rutherford said. "Paul's done a good job here with our teams. I laid it out at the end of last year, what I thought he had done over the three years, and we'll see how that goes.

"Certainly there's a different makeup of the staff. He will get new and different information from new people. We've got a bunch of new players again, so I do think it will take a little longer to bring it all together."

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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