There’s something genuinely ironic about Paul Maurice’s hire in Florida this past week, given the contentious debate on social media over his appointment – as well as that of his good friend, Peter DeBoer, in Dallas.
The two sides of the argument:
1. Should a team opt for an experienced coach, with an established record that immediately leaves them open to criticism that they are hiring a recycled coach, a coach who hasn’t yet been able to get his team to the Stanley Cup finish line? (Pick whichever pejorative term or description you prefer).
2. Or alternatively, do you go out on a limb and recruit one of tomorrow’s promising rising stars, someone paying their dues in the minors, college, junior or Europe, but needs one big break to establish their NHL coaching bona-fides.
In Maurice’s case, even though he now fully qualifies in the first category, he was originally the guy that checked – and practically invented – box No. 2.
The fact is, when Maurice was originally hired to coach the Hartford Whalers a month into the 1995-96 season, he was only 28 and less than a year removed from leading the Detroit Jr. Red Wings to the 1995 Memorial Cup.
Maurice will tell you he was singularly unprepared for the full weight of an NHL head coaching position at that point. But over time, he gradually learned his craft and became better, at every step along the way. Now, some 27 years after making his NHL coaching debut, he is fourth all-time in games coached (1,685), seventh all-time in wins (775), and has developed the requisite skills to do the job properly.
Being an NHL coach requires technical expertise, the ability to change strategies on the fly, and the ability to relate to players of all ages and experience levels. Whenever I think why NHL coaches succeed and fail, I go back to a long-ago conversation with Willie Mitchell who once gave this assessment of Gerard Gallant, back in the early stages of Gallant’s career.
Mitchell said (and I’m paraphrasing for clarity) that in his experience, some coaches do well with younger players because their primary skill is teaching and development and others do well with older players because their expertise is motivation and bench management. Gallant, according to Mitchell, succeeded in doing both.
Ideally, that’s why teams hire who they do, and why they tend to shade toward the more experienced hand, especially if they have a team, such as the Panthers, who probably needed to adjust their special-teams play in the second round against the Lightning when suddenly the highest-scoring team in the league could muster only three goals in four games and didn’t do it effectively. That wasn’t all just because of Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy either.
The problem with a shiny, new unknown behind the bench is sometimes they crash and burn – and you have no way of knowing in advance if they were ready for the NHL or not. In many ways, Tampa Bay is the perfect example. Three years before he hired Jon Cooper to coach, then GM Steve Yzerman plucked rising star Guy Boucher out of the AHL, where he had one spectacular season (2009-10), which followed three successful seasons in the QMJHL.
But whatever formula worked for Boucher at the junior and minor league levels didn’t translate into long-term success at the NHL level. He had a very good first year in Tampa Bay, a mediocre second year and when the 2012-13 Lightning were stumbling along at 13-17-1, Yzerman made the switch to Cooper. The second time around, he got it right. Cooper is still in place, though there was some external pressure on the organization to remove him after that first-round flameout against the Blue Jackets a few years back. Happily, Yzerman completely ignores external pressure.
Cooper’s opposite number in Colorado is Jared Bednar, who was hired by the Avalanche after he led the 2015-16 Lake Erie Monsters to the AHL’s Calder Cup championship, with an impressive 15-2 playoff run.
In Bednar’s first season with the Avalanche, the team went 22-56-4, one of the worst records of the expansion era.
But general manager Joe Sakic stayed patient, though there was significant criticism levelled against Bednar that he was overmatched at the NHL level.
Turns out, he only needed a better team at his disposal. In some ways, the fact that the Avalanche weren’t very good allowed Sakic to hire an unknown and see if he could grow with the team and if he couldn’t, then the Avs were in a position to pivot to a more established voice. It would have been easy for Sakic to get rid of Bednar after one grim season. The fact that he didn’t has paid off in meaningful ways.
The problem is that while Cooper and Bednar represent two success stories the landscape is littered with examples of teams that went looking for the next big thing and didn’t find it. Dave Hakstol, David Quinn, Mike Yeo, Travis Green, Doug Weight, Jeff Blashill, Jeremy Colliton, Glen Gulutzan, Phil Housley, and Dallas Eakins at one point all looked as if they were the right choices to guide an up-and-coming team and it never quite worked out in the end.
Sometimes, the coaches that took a step back to better learn the craft after a failed first try got it right the next time: Mike Sullivan, in Pittsburgh is the best recent example, but Bruce Cassidy also checks that box (he was better the second time around in Boston than he was in his first go-round with the Capitals).
In the end, choosing the right coach for the right moment in a team’s competitive arc is an inexact science.
That’s why GMs conduct such meticulous coaching searches. They know their own futures are ultimately tied to getting it right.
Last Monday, in the first of two reader mailbags, I had a question about Maurice’s future and I wrote this:
“Depending upon what happens in Florida, and if they return Andrew Brunette to the top job or seek a new face, Maurice would be who I would want to slide into that Panthers’ job. I think he’d be the perfect fit for them.”
I didn’t elaborate on why, but the reason is that Maurice would have been better able to go head-to-head with Peter Laviolette (Washington) in the opening round and Cooper in the second round, adjusting away from the things that weren’t working. There’s a calm gravitas to him at this stage of his career and he’s clearly had a chance to recharge his batteries in the past seven months, after elements of burnout started to sap his energy levels.
My sense is that Maurice wouldn’t have taken just any job at this point in his life. It had to be the right job – an opportunity to finally get a team over the finish line. He will gather the Florida leadership group – Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad – seek input from them and then use that knowledge to tweak a team that really doesn’t need a lot of improving.
What sometimes happens – and Washington may be the best example of this – is a team can win any number of Presidents’ trophies and fare well in the regular season and then they get to the playoffs and they just don’t have the experience or poise to handle the pressure of a best-of-seven series.
Washington won its championship in 2018 with a team that faced some regular-season adversity and then overcame it in the playoffs. Florida doesn’t have to finish first in the regular season again next year. The Panthers just need to find a way to channel this year’s second-round loss into an actual learning experience and be readier for postseason play by April of next year.
DeBoer’s secret weapon in Dallas
Maurice’s best friend in the coaching community is DeBoer, who also landed back on his feet this week, getting the job in Dallas, replacing Rick Bowness. DeBoer began his NHL coaching career in Florida before moving to New Jersey for four years and then to San Jose and finally to Vegas. In both his first years with the Devils and Sharks, DeBoer took his teams to the Stanley Cup Final and both times ended up two wins short of a championship.
It was that instant ability to make a difference that ultimately landed him the job in Vegas where he couldn’t duplicate that bit of coaching alchemy for a third time.
In Dallas, at least, there shouldn’t be a goaltending controversy that undermined Vegas’s season.
If Jake Oettinger’s play in the opening playoff round was any indication, he will soon be pushing into the elite echelon of NHL netminders.
It’s amazing how exceptional goaltending can sometimes make the smartest coach look even smarter.
There were people who – half-joking, I suspect – suggested they would reserve third spot on their Conn Smythe ballots for Oettinger, simply because he was the MVP of Round 1.
Of course, those same people also said similar things about Connor McDavid after Round 2. I suspect, when the ballots are finally tabulated, you don’t see either of their names. The Avalanche’s Cale Makar has a chance for an interesting double: The Norris Trophy and the Conn Smythe.
Award ballots revealed
Members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association vote on five awards, three of which were unveiled at a make-shift awards ceremony in Tampa Bay this past week. The full ballots are published on the PHWA website.
Of the three awards unveiled this week, I went McDavid-Auston Matthews one-two on my Hart ballot; Makar-Josi one-two on my Norris ballot; and Moritz Seider-Trevor Zegras one-two on my Calder ballot.
I’d written earlier this year that this was the hardest Norris ballot in my 40-plus years of voting because both players had Norris Trophy-caliber seasons and one of two deserving players was going to come up short. The voters obviously agreed: Josi actually received more first-place votes than Makar, but the cumulative totals favored the Avalanche defenseman.
A number of prominent broadcasters also get to cast votes including this year, for the first time, Wayne Gretzky. As a member of the TNT broadcast crew, Gretzky was issued a ballot. Gretzky also went McDavid-Matthews for the Hart; Makar-Josi for the Norris; and Seider-Zegras for the Calder.
It didn’t attract as much attention as the Maurice-DeBoer hires, but ex-NHL coach Dan Bylsma was promoted this past week to the head coaching position of Seattle’s new AHL affiliate, the Coachella Valley Firebirds.
Bylsma had been working as an assistant coach in Charlotte, for the AHL Checkers, after previously working eight years in the NHL – six with Pittsburgh and two with Buffalo. He won the Stanley Cup in 2009 and the Jack Adams in 2011.
Kenan Thompson did an admirable job of hosting the NHL awards this week between games in Tampa Bay. Loved his advice to the nominees in attendance: “No fighting tonight. This is the NHL awards. Not the Oscars.”
In addition to handing out the awards, the league also unveiled the end-of-season All-Star teams which, too often, get overlooked amid the glitz of the NHL’s hardware. This year, the only team with three All Stars was Calgary: Johnny Gaudreau made the first team at left wing and Jacob Markstrom and Matthew Tkachuk made the second team in goal and at right wing, respectively. Toronto was the only team with two selections – Matthew at center and Mitch Marner at right wing – on the first team.
Boston’s Charlie McAvoy got the other second-team nod alongside Victor Hedman, just 10 voting points ahead of the Rangers’ Adam Fox. What tilted the vote McAvoy’s way was earning seven selections to the first team; Fox got none. Meanwhile, this is already the second time Makar has earned first-team All-Star honors in his young career. Hedman made his sixth All-Star team, one first and five seconds. It matters for a lot of reasons, including how it may or may not influence Hockey Hall of Fame voting.
Hall of Fame time
Speaking of the Hockey Hall of Fame, the selection committee will meet face-to-face for the first time in a long time beginning Sunday in Toronto. Two years ago, early on in the pandemic, the meeting was held via Zoom and last year, it was cancelled completely because the class of 2020 hadn’t been inducted yet.
The net effect of the latter development is that the 18-member committee will have a double cohort of first-year eligible candidates to consider this time around.
Under HHOF eligibility rules, a player must be retired three years to be eligible.
Accordingly, a handful of players who became eligible in the male player category for the first time in 2021 (including Daniel and Henrik Sedin) will be competing for a place in the Hall against a handful of players who first became eligible in 2022 (including the Sedins’ long-time teammate with the Canucks, goaltender Roberto Luongo).
The committee itself has undergone significant restructuring since the last time it met in person.
Long-time committee chairman John Davidson stepped down at the beginning of the calendar year, after 22 years on the committee.
The Hall of Fame’s board of directors twice waived the mandatory 15-year retirement rule to keep Davidson in place, after Davidson stepped in for Pat Quinn after Quinn’s death in 2014. It also means Mike Gartner – a selection committee member since 2009 – will take over as committee chairman in Davidson’s place and be responsible for directing traffic.
With Davidson retiring, Cammi Granato joined the selection committee in his place. Granato became a member of the Hall back in 2010, one of the first two women ever inducted. Now, she is the second woman to serve on the selection committee, after Cassie Campbell-Pascal (who took my spot on the committee in 2019).
The class of 2022 will be announced on Monday, here’s a look at the long list of first-year eligible players.
Handicapping who might get elected is always a tricky business, though it seems likely, based on their respective resumes that both Caroline Ouellette in the female player category and Luongo in the male player category should get in.
For the past few years, we at The Athletic have been running a shadow HHOF committee, using staff members to mimic the process of the actual selection committee. Our last exercise occurred back in November of 2021; the results can be found here.
The Sedins will be interesting because while I fully expect them to get into the Hall eventually, I’m not sure if they will necessarily be first-ballot Hall of Famers because it’s hard to imagine the committee electing one and not the other (though technically, it could happen). If both go in with Luongo that leaves only one other open spot for a male player and there are half-a-dozen “second-chance” candidates with career achievements that equal or surpass those of the Sedins.
So tough calls all around for the selection committee members.
I have long been on the soapbox for more goalies in the Hall, where they tend to be underrepresented. Luongo’s candidacy should change that, as will Henrik Lundqvist’s eventually. Among the goalies overlooked in the past that could get consideration this time around: Mike Vernon, Chris Osgood, Curtis Joseph, Tom Barrasso and Mike Richter.
(Top photo of Paul Maurice: Minas Panagiotakis / NHLI via Getty Images)