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
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?