April 19 2014 07:23PM
News came down a couple days ago that formerly interim Head Coach Paul Maurice had been extended four years. He took over a team with a 19-23-5 record, so perhaps appropriately escaped blame for a last place finish in the Central Division and fewer wins than the much maligned Maple Leafs.
It was a heck of a start for Paul Maurice, in fact. Not only did the team immediately look more competitive on the ice, hope for less of the same spread through the fan base. A 9-3-1 record before the Olympic break was complimented by a lifted suspension for Ivan Telegin and rumblings that Burmistrov may not be a lost asset after all. The players seemed happier and his even his verbal was good - identifying the Jets as a young, fast, big team capable of winning in the Western Conference.
Then it all fell apart. A 9-9-4 record after the break was punctuated by tension with Evander Kane, questionable lineup choices, and some of the hands-in-the-air frustration we saw under Claude Noel.
The pressing question is why it fell apart, and with that, whether Paul Maurice is an upgrade behind the bench. What can we expect from the Jets' second ever tactics magnate?
The Good: Why?
We know the good – the team won games and looked engaged from the Phoenix game on January 13th right through to the Olympic break. The team had a +10 goal differential in those 13 games. The question is why, and my best answer should be concerning.
The first order of business for Maurice was not to push the right motivation buttons or some other nonsense, but to solve some of the most obvious errors in the Claude Noel structure. Instead of two forecheckers below the goal line and the third below the hashmarks, Maurice asked his players to do a 1-2-2 they learned in pee-wee. "Third forward high" is a phrase we hear 10 times a broadcast and just as often in the period breaks of our own beer league games between the chorus of 'let's go boys!'
On the defensive end, Maurice stopped the passive zone overload and installed a man-to-man system with low centre support. The breakout became a simple two-pass-and-out that started on the strong side. No long reverses, no long option, and most importantly, no more forwards skating away from the puck. That was the Noel model – forwards turn and go and the defence will find you with a pass. It meant a very fast transition and tons of turnovers.
Maurice didn't have time to craft something new and complex. He might as well have just photocopied page 1 of Hockey Canada's How-To manual. More likely, he told them to forget everything Noel made them do and just play hockey they way they know how.
With the most basic puck support systems in place, a high forward in the offensive zone for neutral zone pressure, and a more patient breakout, the team excelled.
The Bad: Why?
Their 9-3-1 record wasn't sustainable over 82 games, of course. That 57 win pace would have been 1st in the NHL - it's not a fair standard to expect. But a 9-9-4 record (50% points percentage) after the Olympics and a -3 goal differential was closer to the record under Noel (46% points percentage) than hoped.
Of concern is that when Maurice had time to practice his squad (practices were allowed from February 18th until the start of play on February 27th), the Jets came out with a lot of the same problems they'd had under Noel.
A persistent hole in the top-9 forwards was addressed with Setoguchi out of position, fourth-liners up the roster, and Dustin Byfuglien on both wings. Problem defenders were compensated for with overloading forwards in the defensive end. A 'quick-up' breakout put the turnover pressure on the wingers but didn't end the turnovers. A miserable netminder was given every chance to submarine their small hopes at the post-season.
It may seem small potatoes on a roster with larger problems, but that Maurice treated his AHL call-ups much as Noel did is another problem area. With the season lost, the team didn't seek a satisfactory answer to whether players like Jerome Samson, Adam Lowry, Andrew Gordon, Carl Klingberg, or even Eric O'Dell can be part of the solution moving forward. Stand-out rookie defender Brenden Kichton didn't get a single shift in the NHL, while Ben Chairot and Julian Melchiori both enjoyed call-ups.
Eventually Evander Kane was a healthy scratch, Mark Stuart lauded for his attitude while bleeding chances against, and Devin Setoguchi punished for not digging up while in a coach-made hole.
Two Coaches, One Blogger
In a bubble, the opinions of two highly trained professional coaches would be enough to convince me that I'm missing something important. Typically I spend this space defending coaches and trying to understand how they see the game based on how they organized their teams.
In this case, I think there is a bigger problem. I think the organization is insulating itself from some very obvious criticisms.
I suspect that Paul Maurice got his extension in part because he agreed with many of the conclusions reached by Claude Noel, and that his meetings with Kevin Cheveldayoff were on the usual themes. He didn't ask for Pavelec buy out. He didn't ask for puck moving defenders to make his team look more like St Louis or Chicago or Anaheim or San Jose or LA or Colorado. He didn't ask for a bottom-six forwards with speed and smarts and puck skills.
Pavelec is the starter. Kane has an attitude problem. Mark Stuart is a winner in spirit if not results. We need more intestinal fortitude and not more between the ears. It's business as usual, complete with an 11th place finish in the Conference.
The Bottom Line
From the outside, there was a simple truth to the 2013/14 Jets team. There weren't enough NHL quality players on the roster, and both coaches wanted to see the team gut it out rather than ask for help.
The Jets had three expansive holes in the roster from training camp until the final buzzer: one in the top-9; one in the top-4; and the biggest in net. Olli Jokinen needed help. So did the rookie centre. Bogosian is still miles behind what his paycheque says he is, and Mark Stuart is to Barret Jackman what Brad Boyes is to Thomas Vanek.
The depth guys are at best NHL bubble players. Tangradi can drive the play but not score. Jim Slater can win faceoffs, but might suffer a hallucination that hockey is played on a slip-and-slide. James Wright has turned into a reasonable specialist, but literally didn't score a goal this season. Thorburn and Peluso showed their colours this year as extremely limited 4th liners on a below-average club. Halischuk was never a solution in the top-9, and any one of Pardy, Ellerby, Redmond, or Postma would hard pressed to make another club. In fact, two of them were cut from NHL teams during the season. With injury and re-assignment, all four were playing for the Jets by the end.
For all the years of experience Paul Maurice has, he's hamstrung by a roster with major problems and very quickly fell into the habits of Coaches Past. Is it possible he kept the job precisely because he didn't ask the most poignant questions? Do we have four more years of Group Think in an organization that found the basement of their division in their first season in the West?