It’s difficult not to like Paul Maurice. By most accounts, he’s a player’s coach. He’s famously sincere, gifted with the ability to summarize profound concepts with a quick turn of phrase. He’s a dream coach for hockey media, a quip machine. And he’s even earned praise standing up to defend the honor of Winnipeg, his current NHL city.
And yet, while we’re pretty much all fans of Maurice the person, the timing of his multi-year extension, announced by the Jets Wednesday afternoon, feels at least a little curious. We have to ask the question, no? This Jets team holds a 29-24-5 record, good for 63 points, one behind the Arizona Coyotes for the final Western Conference wild-card spot, though the Jets have a game in hand. In terms of points percentage, the Jets hold the league’s 19th-best record, one spot below a rebuilding New York Rangers team trending toward being a trade-deadline seller. The Jets ice the league’s 19th-ranked offense and defense. They have the NHL’s 17th-best power play and third-worst penalty kill. They’re the league’s 23rd-best possession team at 5-on-5. They generate the fifth-fewest shots and allow the sixth most per 60 minutes. Factoring in expected goals for and against, they have the worst expected scoring ratio in the league at 5-on-5. They allow more high-danger shot attempts per 60 minutes than any other team.
And yet, midway through the season, the Jets decide it’s time to express a vote of confidence for Maurice. Why now? This is the season of endless coach firings, when Gerard Gallant ran out of runway within less than two years of taking an expansion team to the Stanley Cup final and winning the Jack Adams Award.
So what can the Jets’ front office be thinking? The move can’t be based on pure tangible merit. Maurice did take the 2017-18 Jets to within a few points of a Presidents’ Trophy and secure a conference final berth. Last season, however, a team with Cup aspirations got bounced in Round 1 by the eventual-champion St. Louis Blues. But Maurice’s overall legacy as Winnipeg coach is three playoff berths and two series wins across six completed seasons. There’s a case to be made that it was time for Winnipeg to explore a new voice in the room despite Maurice’s being so beloved. Since the start of 2017-18, a.k.a. the Jets’ most successful run under his tutelage, his reams rank 16th in 5-on-5 Corsi and 24th in expected Goals For percentage. Given all the firepower on their roster, it’s not a surprise that they’ve boasted a top-five power play and top-10 offense over that stretch. But the Jets have been far from dominant despite being so stacked on paper.
Still, there’s a case for keeping Maurice around for reasons beyond likability. A conference-final berth followed by a loss to the eventual champs constitutes respectable results, and the Jets’ mediocrity this season is somewhat forgivable given the catastrophic losses they sustained on defense last off-season. Jacob Trouba went to the Rangers in a blockbuster trade, the Jets said goodbye to Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot in free agency, and the biggest blow came when Dustin Byfuglien revealed an ankle injury that required surgery, which led to the Jets suspending him for failing to report to camp after he had passed a season-ending physical months earlier.
So is it any wonder the Jets have struggled so badly to contain opposing attackers and have put so much pressure on goaltender Connor Hellebuyck this season? In 2018-19, their six most-used defensemen were Trouba, Myers, Chiarot, Josh Morrissey, Byfuglien and Dmitry Kulikov. This season: Neal Pionk, Morrissey, Tucker Poolman, Luca Sbisa, Kulikov and Anthony Bitetto. Poolman, Sbisa and Bitetto played a combined 45 NHL games last season. They’ve been asked to do a lot.
Because the Jets have been so remarkably shorthanded on defense, it’s really impossible to evaluate Maurice’s performance this season – thus far and until April. So perhaps GM Kevin Cheveldayoff deserves kudos for recognizing that his coach hasn’t had all the pieces on the chessboard. Cheveldayoff easily could’ve made Maurice walk the plank as a scapegoat, as has been the league-wide trend this season.
It might have made more sense from the team’s perspective to extend Maurice for just one “prove it” year in case he can’t get Winnipeg over the hump next season, but negotiations work two ways, and the offer had to be tempting enough for him to sign. Besides, if 2019-20 has proven anything, it’s that term doesn’t matter in coaches’ contracts when it comes to keeping them behind the bench. Toward that end, it’s merely ink on paper.
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