From his first press conference as coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs to the last, one thing never changed with Paul Maurice: he was playing chess while everyone else was playing checkers.
A farewell press conference is an art form, a demanding one considering how many have been seen by the jaundiced members of the Toronto press corps.
Thursday's was one of the best, bereft of self-pity or maudlin sentiment.
“I can’t say I was surprised, disappointed clearly,” Maurice said of the decision to fire him with a year remaining on his contract. “You want to be part of that change and I think that’s the allure of the Toronto Maple Leafs. When it happens, and it’s going to happen, this is going to be an exceptional place.”
Maurice had two years to get the Maple Leafs into the playoffs. He fell short both seasons. When John Ferguson was ushered out in January, Maurice knew his days might be few. The only thing he asked interim GM Cliff Fletcher was if the axe was to fall, make it soon.
“I really appreciated the fact that when the time came he didn’t wait,” Maurice said. “ You (the media) kept asking him questions because of it, but I appreciated the fact that he didn’t wait.”
Maurice was the prominent name in a list of changes. Goaltending coach Steve McKichan and assistant coach Randy Ladouceur were let go. Assistant General Manager and Director of Player Personnel Mike Penny has moved to a scouting job with the team.
But it was Maurice everyone had come to see. For a decade, the Maple Leafs have employed magicians of the spoken word with Pat Quinn and, until Tuesday, Paul Maurice.
The biggest disappointment of Maurice’s career in Toronto wasn’t missing the playoffs but not being able to change the fate of John Ferguson, who brought him in to coach the Marlies and then the Leafs after eight years in Hartford and Carolina.
“I have one regret. That was John,” he said. “I look at that as under my watch and (it was) under my control of the players that led to that firing. I watched in complete admiration of how he handled himself in a very, very difficult situation.”
Maurice would have no part of the notion that players who stayed behind had failed him.
“I don’t look at it as players failed or coaches failed,” Maurice said. “I think we did as a staff and I think that’s important.”
He said he did not regret predicting the Leafs would make the playoffs in the pre-season.
“I knew it would be kicked back at me but I didn’t have a problem with that. That’s what I believed based on maximum contributions through the year.”
The change from a big market/small market system to a salary cap system is the elephant in the room in the NHL, Maurice said.
“I think there are a group of big payroll teams that have been coming off a lag in the big payroll era where they were able to purchase the players. In some ways, the Leafs have managed it better than you think.”
Maurice, an unabashed admirer of Mats Sundin, remains convinced that there are very good components in the organization.
“There is some very good leadership in that locker room, some really good pieces. I know that operation is painted with a negative when coaches get fired, GMs get fired, players get moved, but there are some good people in that room and some good solid leadership.”
Maurice never won a playoff round save for the year he took the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup finals. He said he was still proud of his work. He said he wouldn’t rule out any job, from an NHL position to something in the AHL.
“My teams never quit,” he said.
Not a bad eulogy.