In less than a month, Paul Maurice has turned around the Winnipeg Jets. Tuesday night, the team he has coached more than any other paid the price.
The Carolina Hurricanes’ 2-1 loss to the Jets gave Maurice the victory in what technically was his third triumphant return to PNC Arena – once with the Toronto Maple Leafs, once back with the Hurricanes and now with the Jets.
Maurice feared the Hurricanes’ speed and aggressiveness, especially coming off a three-day break. His team played a disciplined, careful game appropriate to those circumstances, even as the Hurricanes came charging in the third period. The Jets were rewarded with the late goal and the win, running their record to 9-2-0 since Maurice took over Jan. 12.
That instant success with the Jets shouldn’t come as any surprise. Maurice’s strength always has been instilling order and structure into a disorganized group, particularly at the defensive end. It’s what he did so well coming out of the 2002 Olympic break, and upon taking over the Hurricanes for a second time in 2008-09, building a platform for long playoff runs for both teams.
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In that sense, Winnipeg is an ideal situation for Maurice, with players eager to embrace what he’s teaching and energized by the coaching change. The Jets aren’t a great team, but they’re not a bad team, either, and Maurice has been able to give them a platform to make the most of their talents. Eight of his first 11 games in charge have been one-goal games, all but one was a win.
“They were going. They were trying,” Maurice said. “They just needed a little readjustment, refocus. There were a lot of good things in the Winnipeg Jets’ game and we’ve tried to keep those.”
The next step will be sustaining this success and rising above the mediocrity that has infected the DNA of the franchise both before and after the move from Atlanta. It will be particularly interesting to watch, because that’s where Maurice has struggled over the longer term, in defining and achieving a larger vision for his teams – always focused on the next game, losing sight of the next week, month or even season.
Perhaps that’s just a natural result of spending so much time with so little job security. Too often with the Hurricanes and Maple Leafs, skill players found their talents stifled while underperforming and limited veterans were preferred over higher-risk rookies.
(Peter Laviolette, conversely, excels at articulating the long-term ambition for his teams, but he can struggle when it comes to make necessary short-term compromises to that vision – which is why all of his teams have achieved considerable success, including championships in the AHL and NHL, and why all three of his NHL teams nevertheless ended up firing him.)
Whether Maurice’s experiences since leaving here for the second time – through his time in Russia and on television – have changed his mentality in that regard, only time will tell. People change. Coaches change. Maurice said his experience in Russia in particular, where he was isolated from his players by language, underlined to him the importance of communicating with his players.
“You realize you missed an opportunity in the past to get out to your players in the past,” he said. “You make sure you don’t miss that opportunity any more.”
Maurice’s appointment in Winnipeg is on an interim basis, although he continues to make a persuasive case for making it permanent, another one-goal win Tuesday, this time over his former team, bolstering his argument.