Can Paul Maurice coach Panthers to a Stanley Cup level?
After already hinting at some, uh, “outside the box” decision-making at head coach, the Florida Panthers indeed went with an eyebrow-raiser. Instead of sticking with interim head coach Andrew Brunette, the Panthers hired ... Paul Maurice?
Honestly, it’s still a little baffling. That said, it’s not outrageous to picture it working out.
If nothing else, Paul Maurice has a way with words that few NHL head coaches possess. Or, at least, few are willing to embrace the verbose sides of their vocabularies in public.
In talking up Panthers GM Bill Zito, you get a taste of how good of a salesman Paul Maurice can be.
“The interview process was wonderful,” Maurice said, via the Associated Press. “I don’t know how much time you spend with Bill, but he can jack you up about hockey in about 15 minutes, right? So, I’m in a lather an hour into the meeting and ready to go. And that’s what drives me, and that’s what I love. Really smart, passionate people that want to put on not just a great game, but a great program for the community.”
So, should Panthers fan soak up the excitement of Paul Maurice as their new head coach. Or is this just another retread continuing the NHL’s “Lather. Rinse. Repeat” cycle of familiar names and underwhelming results?
Paul Maurice brings experience to Florida Panthers, if nothing else
Truly, it can sneak up on you just how much experience Paul Maurice has as an NHL head coach. Frankly, you may agree that such a notion eventually becomes a criticism: there’s a difference between getting jobs and doing the most with them.
Since 1995-96, Paul Maurice has rarely been without a head coaching gig. With 1,685 regular-season games of head coaching experience, Maurice ranks fourth all-time. Contrast that with Andrew Brunette, who took over for Joel Quenneville and sits at 75 regular-season games of experience.
Yet, Brunette already accomplished something Paul Maurice never has as an NHL head coach: he won a Presidents’ Trophy.
Remarkably, Paul Maurice has been behind the bench for more losses than any coach in NHL history: 681.
Look at the list of most experienced NHL coaches, and it’s rare to see many with such skinny NHL playoff resumes. So far, Maurice has coached 92 NHL playoff games, winning 41. That number may only impress a Panthers franchise that just won its first playoff series since Maurice became an NHL head coach in 1995-96.
For coaches with longevity, you have to scroll to Ron Wilson to find a similar mix of high quantity and low quality.
Pondering ingredients, and how he cooked them
So, then, how much do you blame the teams he coached? No doubt, part of what made Paul Maurice’s longevity sneak under the radar is that he mostly coached “small-market” teams. Aside from a brief run with the Maple Leafs, Paul Maurice mostly coached the Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes and the Winnipeg Jets.
An NHL head coach can only do so much.
For a significant chunk of his career, you could grade Maurice generously. He was a cook tasked with making meals with limited ingredients. But does that same excuse fly once the Winnipeg Jets amassed a collection of talent that became pretty hard to ignore?
Basically since Dustin Byfuglien went from injured to retired, the Jets never really recovered from a structural standpoint.
When you look at stars like Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, and Kyle Connor, their underlying stats look bad enough that you start asking almost existential questions. Are they really that terrible defensively, or is this also a matter of questionable coaching?
Most knew Blake Wheeler's underlying defensive stats have been shaky for a while. It's especially jarring to see how identically Kyle Connor and Mark Scheifele struggled this season, though. Even Nikolaj Ehlers didn't come out unscathed this season (via @EvolvingHockey) pic.twitter.com/B4kEbX8Q4h— James O'Brien 📎 (@cyclelikesedins) April 27, 2022
As usual, the answer’s likely somewhere in between. Yet, when Paul Maurice resigned, it was tough to shake the feeling that he ran out of ideas.
Will he find convincing answers for the Panthers where he failed with the Jets?
The most important goal: don’t mess up what works
If you’ve followed the NHL long enough, you might be conditioned to assume that a team like the Florida Panthers can only be high-flying and fun for so long. Look at the Dallas Stars. Once, they were the most exciting team in the NHL. After a few setbacks, they totally reversed course, and ended up taking pride in being boring.
After being swept by the Lightning (and slowed by the Capitals), the Panthers clearly lost faith in Andrew Brunette as an NHL-ready head coach.
That’s understandable, if harsh. But they’d be wise not to light everything on fire when so much worked. (Besides, there are worse things than losing to the defending repeat champions, and while frustrating, those losses weren’t all blowouts.)
If nothing else, Paul Maurice gains praise for a willingness to adapt. In media appearances, he undeniably seems sharp.
So here’s hoping he’s bright enough to tweak, rather than to make wholesale changes. It’s fair to wonder with Florida, too.
The Athletic’s Jets beat writer Murat Ates provided an intriguing breakdown of what Panthers fans might expect from Maurice. Among other things, Ates noted that Maurice’s Jets teams focused on cycling the puck rather than attacking off of the rush.
Realistically, the Panthers need to be more versatile. At times, they seemed baffled when the Capitals and especially Lightning managed to slow them down.
A total about-face wouldn’t be wise, though. Again, there’s a fear that the Panthers might overreact.
Panthers face some salary cap/free agent hurdles
Ideally, this would be that perfect chance for Paul Maurice to show that he’s actually a brilliant head coach who just needed the ideal roster. We could truly learn if he has the chops. No more excuses.
But Bill Zito and the Panthers face challenges in putting as good a team on the ice.
Via Cap Friendly, the Panthers only have a bit more than $3M in salary cap space, with just 17 roster spots covered.
That’s with Claude Giroux, Ben Chiarot, and breakthrough forechecker Mason Marchment lingering as pending UFAs.
To make things more complicated, there are also mysteries about future spending. Jonathan Huberdeau’s been a bargain at $5.9M, but he needs a new contract after 2022-23. MacKenzie Weegar is wildly underrated, and a key catalyst for their attack. Yet his steal of a $3.25M cap hit expires after 2022-23, too. Even promising goalie Spencer Knight’s an RFA after next season.
Could the Panthers gain some wiggle room? It’s certainly possible with someone like Patric Hornqvist ($5.3M through 2022-23).
More elaborate dreams of trading Sergei Bobrovsky seem a bit outlandish, though. Even dreaming big, you’d picture bribing a rebuilder with first-rounders to take Bob’s deal.
Unfortunately, the Panthers traded away a ton of their futures already. Between trades for Sam Reinhart, Claude Giroux, and Ben Chiarot, the Panthers are down three first-rounders.
Overall, it seems like there are signs of strain. Personally, the greater concern is that the Panthers decide they want to turn away from the speedy style that gave them franchise-best results. Such ideas bring up nightmares about trading away Weegar to make room for Chiarot.
That ... would be grim.
Perhaps the plan is something less extreme.
As much of a feel-good story as Anthony Duclair has been, he found himself as a healthy scratch at times during the postseason. Personally, Duclair seems worth the occasional mistakes at $3M per year. However, you could start to gain precious room by trading Duclair and Hornqvist, and doing so wouldn’t totally negate the Panthers’ ability to still be a beautiful, kinetic scoring machine.
Ultimately, we’ll learn a lot more about Paul Maurice and the Florida Panthers soon enough.