Even if the latest Winnipeg Jets' playoff drive has ended the same way last year's did – just short, and out of the post-season picture again – there are some things to like about the direction the team is heading, beginning with Paul Maurice, whose presence helped spark a mid-season revival after he replaced Claude Noel as the team's coach.
The Jets want Maurice to stay and Maurice has been happy working with this group. Ultimately, he will sit down with his family once the season ends and discuss what works best for them all before deciding whether to return. Maurice spent last year coaching in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, while his family stayed behind in Columbus, Ohio, where they settled after he got fired from his previous NHL job with the Carolina Hurricanes, midway through the 2011-12 season.
"We left it all to the end of the year," said Maurice. "I like working here. I enjoy this group and I enjoy this challenge. They're just young and they're still working on the basics. We've still got a ways to go.
"But with the age of my kids, I told them they wouldn't be getting a phone call from me, saying 'hey we're moving.' If we decide we are, we'll all be sitting around a table talking about it. Their lives matter as much as yours do."
Happily, teams are willing to accommodate a coach who understands the need for a work-life balance. Jets captain Andrew Ladd received some criticism via social media for skipping a game against the Dallas Stars so he could be with his wife for the birth of their daughter. Once upon a time, the NHL culture dictated that such a thing couldn't happen.
But attitudes gradually changed and players now get time off to attend funerals, time off to attend births and maybe even involve their families in life-changing decisions, as Maurice is doing. This, by the way, represents progress. There's life and then there's hockey and it's OK – even necessary – to have a balance between the two.
"I think it has evolved in terms of how people deal with people," said Ladd, a nine-year pro and a two-time Stanley Cup winner. "In terms of coaching, I think it used to be you'd have the hard-ass coach who would yell and yell and yell. Now, you get coaches that understand there are different ways to motivate guys and if all you do is yell, at some point, it's drowned out and then you lose guys, so they have to find different ways to motivate people."
Maurice, the youngest in history to coach 1,000 NHL games, took over a 19-23-5 Jets team in early January. It was 10 points out of the playoff picture and he presided over an immediate about-face, the sort of turnaround that frequently accompanies a long-awaited coaching change. The Jets were one of the hottest teams in the league heading into the Olympic break, but came out cold as ice.
An injury to second-year centre Mark Scheifele proved especially difficult to overcome – the team won just four of 15 games since he went out and was officially eliminated from playoff contention Thursday night by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Both Maurice and Ladd have strong ties to the Carolina Hurricanes organization, though their paths never actually crossed there. Maurice coached the Hurricanes twice – before and after a two-year stint with the Toronto Maple Leafs – and took them to the 2002 Stanley Cup final, where they lost to the Detroit Red Wings. Ladd was drafted fourth overall by the Hurricanes in 2004, where he won the Stanley Cup in 2006 as an NHL rookie before being traded to the Chicago Blackhawks. But Ladd still has lots of friends and acquaintances in the Hurricanes organization and got a favourable scouting report from them on Maurice's second-go-round behind the Carolina bench.
So is Maurice a good fit for their group?
"I think he's a good fit for any group," answered Ladd. "That's probably his biggest asset – you can tell he can read a group and find different ways to motivate them. Not every group is the same. You get young groups, older groups and every group you have needs to be handled and approached differently.
"For me, you can just tell he's a smart man who puts a lot of thought into everything he does."
Toronto is next up on the Jets' schedule, with a chance to spoil whatever little hope still springs eternal there. For Winnipeg, Maurice says the goal from now until the end of the season is simply to "introduce consistency to our routine and our approach." Having played on teams that previously won championships, Ladd sees the value of that too.
"It's something we need to get better at in terms of preparation and making sure you're ready to go between games, or morning of, to be ready when they drop the puck," said Ladd. "Our game is fore-checking and [speed] through the neutral zone. If we're pressing, it allows our D to stay up and gives teams less time. If we're sitting on our heels, teams have time to make plays coming out of their end.
"At this point, we're looking big picture and trying to get that consistency – of having that same effort game in and game out. You might not have your hands, you might not be as clean as you want to be every game, but you're going to have that foundation of working and skating that we need every night."
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