It was a beaming Paul Maurice who held court with media Friday, hours after he was named the 26th coach in Toronto Maple Leafs history. The question now is, how long will it take for him to start Jim-Beaming?
You know what we’re on to here. Anybody with even a marginal appreciation for what happens when you mix ants, sunlight, and a magnifying glass can see what Maurice is in for behind the Leafs’ bench. Thousands of infectious diseases receive less attention in a decade than the Toronto job gets in a day.
Even if he goes 82-0 next season and wins 15 games in the playoffs, you won’t see a drop in Â“But Paul hasn’t proven himself!Â” babbling on local talk radio. So it’s easy to understand why industry observers have the over/under on Maurice’s humor going from giddy to gallows set at the Leafs’ first eight-game losing streak.
Still, despite the built-in sense of hopelessness that comes with following this team for too long, we’re of the opinion that, given the right weapons to wield, Maurice will be a colossal hit in this city.
It all starts with the 39-year-old’s self-effacing sense of humor. The guy is flat-out funny, and for sports media types bludgeoned by self-important soliloquies from athletes and executives, that makes him worth twice his weight in gold.
But Maurice didn’t survive more than seven seasons as Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes coach simply because he could tickle a rib or two. He was constantly learning his craft, constantly expanding his horizons, constantly demanding at least as much of himself as he did of his players. If there was something he was doing wrong, Maurice wanted (a) to hear about it, and (b) to fix it.
The same was true when he signed on to coach the Toronto Marlies (the Leafs’ American League affiliate) last June. He wanted to know why Toronto did such a crummy job of developing their prospects into bona fide major leaguers, and he wanted to end that tendency as quickly as possible.
Lo and behold, Maurice did exactly that. He emphasized conditioning and intense-but-short practices, and steered the Marlies Â– who were plagued all season by injuries and call-ups to the parent team Â– into the AHL post-season.
More importantly, his players performed well when the Maple Leafs needed their services. From John Pohl to Ian White to Jay Harrison to Brendan Bell on down, the prospects looked more prepared, and in better physical condition, than their so-called NHL betters. That was perhaps the ultimate indictment of Maurice’s predecessor Pat Quinn, and why GM John Ferguson was right to make a change.
Now, do we really need to tell you not to plan the parade route yet? Again, always bear in mind this is Toronto we’re talking about. If we awoke tomorrow to the news Tie Domi bought the team and named himself lifetime first-line winger, we wouldn’t bat an eye in surprise.
Besides, for the past four decades, this organization has found a way to satisfy its hunger for a Stanley Cup with the scraps of petty successes. And as alluded to earlier, Ferguson’s off-season roster moves, of which there should be many, will have a huge bearing on Maurice’s coach’s ability to win.
Another potential drawback for Maurice is the lack of a contract extension for his boss. If the Leafs fail to make the playoffs again next spring, Ferguson almost surely will be canned. And then Maurice will head off to work each day hearing the Â“does the new GM want his own coach?’ speculation that haunted Quinn at the end of his Toronto tenure.
Those are nagging doubts for another day. Throughout the summer and early fall, it will be Maurice’s time to shine. And frankly, it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.
A few years ago, we interviewed Maurice for The Hockey News when he was still coaching with the Hurricanes. One of the questions we asked him was, Â“who would play you in a movie?Â” He thought for a second, chuckled into the phone, and said his wife once told him he resembled former NBA coach P.J. Carlesimo.
For his sake, here’s hoping the Maple Leafs don’t turn out to be Latrell Sprewell.
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