TORONTO – As far as Rod Brind’Amour is concerned, the Toronto Maple Leafs are lucky to have a coach like Paul Maurice.
“I’ve always thought he’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever had. Plain and simple,” the Hurricanes centre said before Carolina took on Toronto on Tuesday night. “There’s a guy that always knew what to say, what the pulse of the team was. He’s one of the best at that.”
The backing from the Hurricanes captain, who played for Maurice when he coached in Raleigh, could not have come at a better time. Maurice and Leafs GM John Ferguson are on the hot seat these days and many wonder if they’ll survive the season. While Ferguson’s deal expires at the end of the season, Maurice has another year on his contract.
It’s Ferguson that has largely been the target of criticism from media and fans in Toronto going back to last season while Maurice was largely left untouched in his first year behind the Leafs bench. But Maurice began feeling the heat this season with his team underperforming and now his feet are as close to the fire as his GM’s.
The talk of Maurice’s demise in Toronto didn’t sit well with Brind’Amour.
“He took us to the Cup final (in 2002) when we didn’t have much of a team in terms of what other teams had – back in the days when we had a $30-million payroll and other teams had $70 million and we were able to beat them,” Brind’Amour said after the pre-game skate at Air Canada Centre.
“And that’s from coaching. Enough said right there.”
Maurice has been here before. He came close to being fired more than once during his nine-year tenure with the Hartford/Carolina organization before Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford finally gave him the pink slip in December 2003.
“He’s a real strong guy,” Rutherford said Tuesday. “He had been there a real long time. We all know coaches and managers don’t stay in one place for a long time for the most part. Paul was in his ninth year with us and had done a very good job, even through the off years for us. He was a very good coach, he had as good an understanding of the situation as anybody in our organization on different kind of years and knew what needed to be done.
“I’m sure he has a good understanding of what’s going on now and tells his boss and tells the media some of it – but probably not all of it because of the situation he’s in.”
Maurice is back in Toronto this week following a dismal 0-3-0 California road trip that helped increase the speculation of his possible demise. Even on the routine days the Leafs attract the largest media contingent in the NHL. But the masses – smelling blood – descended at the Air Canada Centre on Monday and Tuesday.
Through it all, Maurice kept his sense of humour and answered each and every question. He deserves credit for facing the music and keeping his focus even in the darkest of times.
“Clearly this is somewhat of a different market,” Maurice said Tuesday.
But his experience in Carolina, when he heard the rumours and saw the end coming, has prepared him for what’s developing in front of him right now.
“Yes, that experience helps,” said Maurice.
He says the key is to keep the communication lines open with his players so that they don’t feel something strange is going on.
“Making sure that as a coaching staff you stay connected to that team and that you lead by that example – that you’re still in the fight and you’re still doing the things to help prepare them so that when they hit the ice, you don’t get players saying, ‘Geez, the coaches haven’t talked to us in three days because things are rough.’
“You make sure that never happens, that you’re still getting out to your players.”
Don’t let the dark rings under Maurice’s eyes fool you into thinking he’s more stressed than ever.
“He always looks a little stressed,” said Brind’Amour. “He actually looks better now than what he did in Carolina. I think he’s more experienced and he knows he can only do what he can do and that’s put the game plan in place.
“As a coach, you can’t control the guys on the ice and what they’re doing,” added Brind’Amour. “Coaching at this level is no big secret. It’s the guys on the ice that have to produce. Unfortunately the way it works it always seems to come back on the coach – but it’s never the coach’s fault.”