Maurice remains right man for the job

There’s a fellow on Twitter who never misses an opportunity to send his rather pointed views my way whenever something goes wrong with the Winnipeg Jets. Whether it’s a questionable lineup decision, a poor on-ice play, a goal against or a loss, his message is almost always the same: It’s all Paul Maurice’s fault.

Jets extend Maurice’s contract

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And he drives this home with by signing off with the same two humorous hashtags: #MoMustGo and #LostTheRoom.

Well, bless his consistent heart, but “Mo” isn’t going anywhere after signing a multi-year extension with the organization on Wednesday. And a big reason for that is that, contrary to what my frustrated follower (and others like him out there on social media) may think, Maurice has not, in fact, lost the room despite already being the second-longest tenured head coach in the NHL.

Quite the opposite, actually.

If you’ve spent any time watching the Jets this season, you’ll see an extremely tight-knit group of players who have adopted “staying in the fight” as their unofficial motto and have rolled with a flurry of punches that have come their way since training camp.

Whether it was the Dustin Byfuglien bombshell, the Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor contract situations, the massive makeover of the blue line, injuries to key players such as Bryan Little, Adam Lowry and Mathieu Perreault, off-ice health scares to a beloved trainer and veteran forward Mark Letestu, or just the usual ups and downs that come with the long grind of a season, the Jets have managed to avoid veering off course and crashing and burning, which is something many pundits predicted was going to happen.

Captain Blake Wheeler is on record as saying he'd "go through a wall" for Maurice. (John Woods / Canadian Press files)

Captain Blake Wheeler is on record as saying he’d “go through a wall” for Maurice. (John Woods / Canadian Press files)

And behind the wheel is a well-respected head coach these players genuinely enjoy going to battle for, one whose message has definitely not grown stale.

I wrote in early October how the charismatic Maurice put on a clinic in crisis management in how he calmly worked through all the obvious distractions and never gave his group an excuse to feel sorry for themselves. Instead, it seems to have become a season-long rallying point.

Blake Wheeler is on record as saying he’d “go through a wall” for Maurice, which is certainly a ringing endorsement. And the way this group has responded to adversity, while very much staying in the hunt for a playoff spot, suggests the captain isn’t alone.

Sure, a huge factor has been the play of Connor Hellebuyck. In speaking with Dale Hawerchuk about his cancer fight the other day, he shared a funny story about a fired head coach who was asked what, if anything, he’d change about his time behind the bench: “My starting goalie,” the ex-coach replied.

As the old saying goes, show me a great coach and I’ll show you a great netminder. And Maurice has been blessed this season with mostly stellar play from Hellebuyck, which has definitely masked some of the obvious faults with the lineup as currently constructed.

To be fair to Maurice, he wasn't responsible for the off-season exodus of key defencemen in Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot. (John Woods / Canadian Press files)

To be fair to Maurice, he wasn’t responsible for the off-season exodus of key defencemen in Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot. (John Woods / Canadian Press files)

To be fair to Maurice, he can only play the cards that are dealt to him. And in this case, he wasn’t responsible for the off-season exodus of key defencemen in Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot, which have played a big role in why Hellebuyck has been so busy on many nights.

Does Maurice have his faults? Of course. He’s often stubborn to a fault, and perhaps overly loyal to veteran depth players. He can be extremely tough on young players, although I’d suggest we’ve seen a shift in that department this season.

How else to explain teenagers David Gustafsson and Ville Heinola both cracking the opening-night roster? In Heinola’s case, I can tell you Maurice didn’t want him to go anywhere, with general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff ultimately deciding it would be best for the 18-year-old’s long-term development to send him back to Finland for the duration of this season.

More recently, we’ve seen Sami Niku playing on the second defensive pairing and even getting power-play time, even while more experienced blue-liners such as Luca Sbisa and Anthony Bitetto have sat out. Mason Appleton is currently on the second line. Jansen Harkins is on the third line. Jack Roslovic has played a much bigger role this season, including power-play time.

There also appears to be a greater reliance on advanced statistics in his coaching philosophy, as Maurice now routinely refers to analytics when discussing various moves. In that sense, he’s gotten with the times.

There’s no question Maurice took a gamble by heading into this season without an extension, essentially betting on himself. After two straight playoff appearances, there was the potential this could all go south in a hurry. Following a 6-7-0 October, you weren’t alone in wondering what the future held.

Now 29-25-4 and with 24 regular-season games remaining, the Jets are just one point out of the final Western Conference wild-card playoff spot. Perhaps that’s why the extension was announced on Wednesday at the team’s Hall of Fame luncheon, with the Jets on a 4-1-1 run.

I have no doubt it was going to happen eventually, given the overall body of work, but it may have been a tougher sell to the public if it happened a few weeks earlier, as the Jets were stumbling through a dreadful January.

There will still be critics, no doubt, who believe Maurice has worn out his welcome around here and a new voice is needed. And yet, in the areas that matter most, there is no evidence that those closest to the situation feel that way. Change for the sake of change is rarely a good idea.

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Maurice was the right man for the job when he took over for Claude Noel in January 2014, with the Jets about to undergo what would be a slow and rather painful rebuild and youth movement.

And now, more than six years later, Maurice remains the right man for the job, with the Jets coming off their two best seasons in franchise history, currently in the running for a third straight playoff appearance, and with a solid core of players to build around and all kinds of salary cap flexibility coming this summer to bolster the roster.

With Maurice at the helm, the Jets remain in good hands for the foreseeable future.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
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Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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