Fans may think it’s Groundhog Day when they glance behind the bench tonight and see Paul Maurice pacing back and forth, patting players on the back and occasionally yelling at the refs.
If they glaze over for a minute or two the red line may also reappear, or a vision of No. 10 whipping a blind pass onto the tape of another Carolina stick for a goal will subconsciously produce an instance yell of approval.
But allow yourself to fast-forward to the present-day NHL, where there are no more “neutral-zone traps” employed by teams hoping to hang on for a 2-1 win, and where winning early in the season seems more important than ever. Ask the former coaches from Chicago and Tampa Bay about that axiom.
That leads us to the present day, where an older and much wiser Maurice, now 41 and having been through the meat-grinder that NHL coaches call Toronto, has replaced 2006 Stanley Cup champion Peter Laviolette. Too few goals and even fewer consistent efforts led to the dismissal of Lavy as we enter December, a scenario that’s all too familiar for a guy like Maurice, who must wake up in the middle of the night on occasion to the chants of “Mo Must Go.”
Do second marriages work?
That remains to be seen. But general manager Jim Rutherford dug into his bag of hockey dust the other day out came on old familiar face by the name of Paul Maurice.
Maurice was a safe call, a guy who agreed for the moment to help one if his best friends – Rutherford – jump-start a team that appeared to lack motivation and the drive to take it to the next level. With no promises of future years behind the bench, Maurice was willing to return to the birthplace of his three children and continue as Raleigh’s hockey ambassador before his time expired with the Canes in December 2003.
The emotions of Wednesday’s somewhat expected news on the Laviolette front, coupled with the shocking return of Mo, subsided with a morning skate, something the Canes had abandoned this season until today.
“The good thing about having Mo back is that I know we have a good coach,” said captain Rod Brind’Amour. “There is always that question when you bring in somebody you don’t know. There are some coaches that aren’t so good that keep coming back and you wonder how that keeps happening. But this isn’t that case. I know we have a great coach. I know what he expects and what he brings.”
Niclas Wallin is another who welcomes back Maurice with open arms. Few in the room are more to the point than Wallin, who summed up Maurice’s style rather quickly.
“It was a dark, dark day for us yesterday, but if we’re going to bring in a new guy he’s the guy to bring in,” Wallin said. “The other guys have come up and asked me how Paul is. I told them he’s the kind of guy that if you work, you play.”
Sounds simple enough. Work ethic should be high on Carolina’s wish-list of to-dos. So is improving a dismal power play and scoring goals in general. The Canes have scored two or fewer goals in 11 of the past 14 games as they cling to the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference.
Before you take a jab at Mo’s previous defensive-minded coaching style, which for the most part was out of necessity for a lack of overall talent and depth, let’s take a step back off the boards for a minute. Under his leadership, Carolina finished ninth and eighth in the NHL on the power play in 1999-00 and 2000-01 (they would take half of that now) before leading the club to the Cup finals a year later. And his Toronto teams were more up-tempo than we remember from his Carolina days.
“It’s always up to the players, but he understands how the game has changed,” Brind’Amour said. “That’s one of the first things he mentioned. He’s definitely on top of that. Goal scoring is not really a systematic thing; it’s a confidence issue, too. Hopefully, we’re just going to start over and feel good about ourselves and we’ll see good results.”
“The ability and capability to score goals is here,” added Maurice. “And usually when you’re looking to do that the only thing that happens is the puck is going in your net. The game is far more offensive minded, and thank God of that, than it used to be, and I think the strength of this team is that – it’s two-man forechecking, it’s speed.
“When you look at a high-end player that expects to score who is not, if he’s got any worth as a person, the first thing he tries to do is more. Very few guys do less. We’ve got a lot trying to do more in there and we’ve got to put that energy in a little different area.”
Brind’Amour, Wallin and Eric Staal -- if just for a few games in his rookie season -- are the only holdovers from the previous Mo regime, so the “new-old” coach has practically gone hoarse from player meetings and quick skull sessions with the coaching staff, which now includes his former captain in Francis.
“It’s going to be tougher for him than us, coming into a situation to where there are 20 new guys and trying to remember their names, let alone figure out what they can do and how he can get the best out of them,” Brind’Amour said.
After sleeping on his new gig and being back at the RBC Center on game day, Maurice said the sensations are somewhat strange.
“The only way I can explain it is there are times when I was walking around where I have forgotten that I ever left because everything is so easy and natural,” he said. “And then I’ll be walking through and it’s like I’ve never been here. There are still faces that I have to look at the back of the helmet before I know who I’m talking to. There is a lot of change-over in that room. It’s interesting, to say the least.”
Maurice held his pregame news conference against the backdrop of a hallway wall similar to the style of Laviolette. But that’s only because of the large crowd of Carolina and Pittsburgh media wanting to get to the new coach. As the games unfold over the next few weeks, I expect to be back in Mo’s office, with his feet up on desk, flip-flops dangling from feet, with 100 percent honestly flowing from his jaws.
“I’m more relaxed when you’re allowed to be relaxed,” Mo said. “When you take a job at 28 in the National Hockey League you walk around with a growl on your face so everybody knows you’re serious. Half your team was older than you were so you want to be taken seriously. As I’ve gotten older I probably have a little bit more fun with the parts outside the game, like talking to the media and not worrying as much about what’s said. If you talk to the media enough, and I learned this in my last job, you’re going to say something stupid at some point, so you might as well let’er go. I’m more malleable. Things are constantly changing. I can read on the fly a little bit more.”
“He was one of the smartest coaches I’ve ever played for. That’s not going to change,” Brind’Amour said.
Good to have you back in town, Mo.