All eyes were on Paul Maurice this morning as he stepped onto the ice in his Winnipeg Jets track suit and put his new team through the paces at the morning skate for roughly 25 minutes.
From the stands, it appeared the Jets had a little more spring in their step and after taking to players afterward, it’s clear is that the arrival of Maurice has their attention.
I asked several players for their first impression of the new bench boss and the answers were telling.
“Professional,” said Jets winger Devin Setoguchi. “You can tell by the way he acts, the demand level that he’s going to have and the respect that guys are already giving him. By speaking with him today, you know what he’s like by talking to him.
“He’s pretty black-and-white. The only word I can think of is professional, in how he conducts himself and what he demands of his players and his staff. That’s something that we’re collectively, as a group, we need to realize that we need to work for him and things will be okay.”
“He was energized, stern. He was good. It just seemed like he was excited to be here. It’s going to be fun. It starts tonight,” said Jets forward Chris Thorburn. “His persona, there’s some intimidation there. He’s been around for a while and seen a lot. I think there are a lot of good things in store for us.”
“Coach Maurice will be good for us and he’ll definitely help us,” said Jets rookie centre Mark Scheifele. “He seems like a really passionate guy. He really knows the game. Obviously, coaching over 1,000 games already is pretty big. He seems like a good coach. It’s only the first day, but he definitely has a lot to teach and all the guys will learn a lot from him, especially me.”
As for Maurice, his first scrum with members of the Winnipeg media was just under 20 minutes long and he dealt with a variety of topics, both about his team and his own passion for coaching.
As someone who coached against many of the core group during his time in the Southeast Division with the Carolina Hurricanes, Maurice knows enough about the group to know what he likes and what the challenges are.
“I like the speed and I like the youth, more than anything else,” said Maurice. “There’s a big team that can move, and a young team that has room to grow.”
But how does a coach get a wildly inconsistent team to buy into playing the right way all the time?
“First you have to show them the value of it,” said Maurice. “Before you can get on a player about where he’s supposed to be, you have to show him where he’s supposed to be. You need to get to know them as individuals, spend some time with them. That may be something I’ve learned over the last five or six years that I didn’t know early on. That you have to get to know some of these players. And motivation is different for each player.
“What they’re going through, they just want to get out of it. They want this to go away. They want the anger, the frustration by the fans, it’s the same as the frustration in that locker room, they want to find a way out. It’s the coaching staff’s job to lead that way out.”
Maurice cracked a few jokes but for the most part, he gave insightful answers that gave an indication of what his top priorities are.
“The first is the playoffs, but it’s not the primary goal,” said Maurice. “That will get taken care of. There’s not a lot of meat on the bone… and there’s not a lot of time on the clock. Those are the facts. We’ve played 47 hockey games here and won 14 of them. the hockey portion. So that’s telling you we’ve got a big hill to climb, no doubt about that.
“But the most important is to get on a path, create a foundation of the game they understand and that they have faith in playing. So when adversity happens on the ice, when you go through a stretch like you’re going through now, you have an understanding of the game you’re supposed to play. And there is a defensive component to it. And there is a battle and a compete code to it. But that’s our No 1 goal: building confidence in a game they understand. That they can play. And I believe they can.”
Maurice also told a funny story about waiting for his flight to Winnipeg yesterday at Pearson International Airport.
“I’m sitting in the Toronto airport yesterday and there’s two 14- or 15-year-old ringette player girls talking,” said Maurice. “And over in the corner there’s a TV talking about the coaching change. And off they go. They’re talking hockey. It eventually got to when the next game was, and they were asking a bunch of people, and I said it’s Phoenix, tomorrow night. And they said do you know who the new coach is? Yeah, I’ve met him. So we introduced ourselves. That’s Canada. The people are so polite. Best of luck tomorrow night.
“But I also know there’s going to be an awful lot of passion. And they’re going to want to win this game and every darn one they drop the puck on.”
Speaking of passion, when I asked Maurice about where his passion for the game comes from, he went right back to his roots before explaining that his thirst for knowledge hasn’t wavered since he became an NHL head coach for the first time at the age of 28 with the Hartford Whalers.
“From Sault Ste. Marie, Ont, Canada. The rink in the back yard,” said Maurice. “It’s getting more intense. I spent my whole life in the NHL, basically, as a coach. My time overseas I enjoyed it. But I cannot tell you how happy I am, how excited I am, to get behind that bench tonight. Because it’s the best league in the world with the best players. Yeah, the pressure and all that. But the passion I have for the game as a coach is far more intense than even it was when I was starting. I just love this game. That’s a big part of the reason why I’m here in Winnipeg, with this group. Because I think we can do something special.”
While that’s true, Maurice was brutally honest when asked what fans should expect tonight in his first game behind the Jets’ bench.
“Your guess is as good as mine,” said Maurice. “I mean, I’ve been here for four hours. Let’s not pretend this world is going to change by my grace alone”
On the subject of goaltending, Maurice said he needs someone to step up and he doesn’t care who.
“I played Arturs Irbe 72 games one year, and didn’t get committed. But Kevin Weeks was a big part of the reason we went to the Stanley Cup Final. So I used them both,” said Maurice. “There is no hard and fast truth. We need a guy to step up. Don’t care who it is. But I also know the guy who isn’t getting the net tonight, I believe in him, too. I’ve seen them both play well.
“I’d like them not to have to play so well to win games. Coaches and goaltenders are the same. We both need to be good. If I can’t put the structure in front of him, he can’t win. And if he doesn’t stop the puck, I can’t win. So we’re entwined. You get a guy that’s going, you can run with him. But you can’t leave the other guy sit for too long.”
Ondrej Pavelec gets the first chance tonight and we’ll see what happens from there.
As for Dustin Byfuglien, Maurice isn’t sure where he’s going to play for the long-term but left open the possibility that he could play either or both effectively. However, he didn’t want to move him back before taking a look at him up front.
“Dustin Byfuglien can be a very, very big impact defenceman, a positive impact defenceman. I also believe he can be a very strong forward. I want to look at it, make a decision and then run with it,” said Maurice. “I can tell you this: he handled that great. That’s a tough situation… and his answer of whatever we need to do, and I believed it when he said it, was absolutely the answer I was hoping to hear.
“I believe in him at both positions. I’ll find one for him. When Dustin Byfugien’s playing as well as he’s capable, he’s fully confident and our team’s going. There’s going to be some nights he plays both, because he can.”
Evander Kane (hand) didn’t participate in the morning skate, so he’s expected to miss his second consecutive game, while Eric Tangradi was absent because of the flu.
Early Monday afternoon, the Jets announced they had lifted the suspension of Ivan Telegin and assigned the speedy winger to CKSA Moscow of the Kontinental Hockey League.
Telegin, a 21-year-old who was drafted in the fourth round by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2010, was suspended for failing to report to the St. John’s IceCaps of the American Hockey League.
The reasons for Telegin failing to report were never really given, but he was limited to only 34 games with the IceCaps last season after suffering a concussion.
I had an extensive chat with Telegin before the YoungStars tournament and he seemed excited to be healthy and determined to have a strong season, which is why his failure to report was a surprise.
If the Jets view Telegin as part of their future plans — and you have to assume they do or else they could have simply terminated his contract so he could leave for the NHL — having him sit around not playing for the entire season didn’t make any sense.
Meanwhile, the Coyotes enter the contest with a record of 21-14-9 (51 points) and hold three games in hand on the Jets.
“I’ve been through it as a player and it certainly does put a boost in energy, everybody is trying to show what they can do for the new guy. You expect them to be very competitive tonight, juiced up,” said Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett. “From our end, with us not playing as well as we want to, we should have a mindset of our own and do things we think can help our game. We recognize where they’re going to be, everybody wants to impress the new boss but on the other side, we’ll concentrate on what we have to do today and make sure our game is in order.”
It will certainly be a special night for Coyotes defenceman and Winnipegger Mike Stone, who will play the first NHL game in his hometown and home province tonight.
Tippett has been impressed with the development of the 23-year-old who was selected in the third round (69th overall) of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft after a strong career with the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League.
Stone has eight goals and 13 points in 37 games this season and is paired with Oliver Ekman-Larsson.
“A breakout season,” said Tippett. “The fact he’s turned into an NHL player and he’s used his assets that he has to his advantage, he’s got a big shot and that shows in the goal column. He’s got more opportunity and taken advantage of it.
“It was only a matter of time. I like to see players like that, that put the work in. They get drafted, they put in their years. Especially with defenceman, in the minors they get to know how to play the game. All of those lessons that they learn, it’s takes a while but they translate it into an NHL game. He’s going to be a good NHL player for a long time.”
Anyway, lots of storylines to follow tonight. Enjoy the tilt.
For now, here’s how we expect both teams to start on Monday:
Andrew Ladd-Bryan Little-Michael Frolik
Chris Thorburn-Mark Scheifele-Blake Wheeler
Devin Setoguchi-Olli Jokinen-Dustin Byfuglien
James Wright-Eric O’Dell-Anthony Peluso
Toby Enstrom-Zach Bogosian
Mark Stuart-Jacob Trouba
Adam Pardy-Keaton Ellerby
Ondrej Pavelec (Al Montoya)
Shane Doan-Martin Hanzal-Radim Vrbata
Rob Klinkhammer-Antoine Vermette-Mikkel Boedker
Lauri Korpikoski-Mike Ribeiro-David Moss
Paul Bissonnette-Jeff Halpern-Jordan Szwarz
Keith Yandle-Derek Morris
Rostislav Klesla-David Schlemko
Mike Smith (Thomas Greiss)