Sixty-one months ago, Jim Rutherford phoned one of his best friends in hockey, Paul Maurice.
The Hurricanes president and general manager was ready to make a coaching change and needed a replacement for Peter Laviolette.
Maurice was newly unemployed after things didn't work out in Toronto. He was still being paid, but coaches want to coach. There were no guarantees, however. Rutherford reserved the right to re-evaluate the situation after the season.
Maurice didn't give him a choice. The Hurricanes made the playoffs, then won two dramatic Game 7s before the eventual Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins wiped them out in the Eastern Conference final. He would stay behind the bench for another 189 games.
That's why, when Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff offered a similar opportunity
-- an NHL job with no guarantees beyond this season -- Maurice took the chance. But this is a much bigger challenge.
When Maurice began his second term in Carolina on Dec. 3, 2008, the Hurricanes were tied for the eighth and final playoff position in the East. These Jets are 12 points out of the playoffs in the brutal Western Conference, with three teams between them and the second wild-card spot.
In Carolina, some of the key personnel knew him very well. Rod Brind'Amour, Eric Staal and Niclas Wallin remained from Maurice's first stay. There is no such familiarity in Winnipeg.
Like several other teams, Winnipeg tried to make trades, but the market is incredibly weak right now. (If you had $1 for every time a GM said something along the lines of, "I could make a trade right now, but it won't make us any better," you could buy everyone in Brazil a Big Mac).
It appears likely the Jets (and just about everyone else) will have to wait until the post-season to perform major surgery, when the cap goes up and the 29 teams who don't win the Cup decide what they want to do.
So, Maurice will try to jolt a team that was sleepwalking through its games. He likes an aggressive man-to-man in-zone defensive system. They will have some practice time in the next week to work on it.
It is possible there are GMs holding back from coaching changes because they don't want to make long-term commitments until they see who is available this summer. Maurice, who coached in Russia last season but turned down an extension to come home, is jumping the queue.
Coaches want to coach, and Maurice isn't afraid to bet on himself.
1. As the cap goes up, teams are going to look for useful players already locked up with term. Winnipeg has a lot of these guys. Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd have two more years. Tobias Enstrom, Evander Kane and Bryan Little have four. Blake Wheeler has five. Zach Bogosian has six. The Jets could have some real options here. What you hear from outside Manitoba is: the younger the player, the harder it will be to pry them loose. Which is probably the way it should be.
2. The oldest, and highest-paid, is Enstrom. Only 20 defencemen had at least two 50-point seasons from 2005-13, and he is one. (He was also at an 82-game-pace of 55 last season). This year, he's got just 14 points in 47 games. He still gets a high percentage of offensive zone starts and mucho power-play time. Some teams are skittish about paying big numbers for defencemen who don't produce. One-year fluke, or start of a bad trend?
3. If I ran the Jets, I would not trade Kane unless the return was massive. A 22-year-old 30-goal scorer locked-in at $5.25 million US is an extremely valuable piece. Last year, Kane played hard down the stretch despite a wrist injury. This year, there's been some weird stuff. He left Saturday's pre-game skate after 10-15 minutes with his hand injury, much to the surprise of teammates and coaches. He called himself a healthy scratch when sat for a game earlier, when the team didn't think he was available because he hadn't practised. This is a big test for Maurice.
4. I have zero evidence they've actually discussed this, but does Dustin Byfuglien not strike you as the kind of guy Adam Oates would love a shot at coaching?
5. One other thing about the Jets: their goaltending is below an acceptable level. Right now, the NHL's average save percentage is .913. Only 2011-12, which was .914, would be higher since 1984. Ondrej Pavelec is at .898. It should be pointed out that Winnipeg made Columbus look like the Harlem Globetrotters the other night, but the team needs some saves.
6. Asked one NHL owner how he would deal with a hugely disappointed Martin St. Louis
if the star winger was a member of his team. "First thing I would do is say, 'You've got four points in three games since this happened. We're very lucky to have such a professional lead us,'" he said. "I would tell him that no matter what happened with Canada, we will always appreciate everything he does. He's going to be a part of our organization forever, with his number retired. And I'd tell him that I'm not trading him no matter what."
7. He paused and laughed. "Then, I'd buy him a new car, buy his wife anything she wants and send the family on an all-expenses paid trip to wherever they want to go."
8. Didn't you just know Michel Therrien and P.K. Subban were headed for some kind of skirmish once Subban was named to the Olympic Team
9. On Feb. 23, 2012, Los Angeles was dead last in goals for, fourth-best in goals against. GM Dean Lombardi went out and got Jeff Carter. Over the final 21 games of the season, the Kings jumped from 2.1 to 3.1 goals per night, and we all remember the playoffs. Look out, Mr. Lombardi is searching for offence again. They are the best defensive team in the league and 20th in scoring.
10. As Darryl Sutter coached his 1,000th regular-season game, he said he and his wife couldn't remember his first. It was the night Chris Kontos scored four goals as Tampa Bay beat Sutter's Blackhawks 7-3 in the Lightning's NHL debut. He's probably blacked it out.
11. Interesting comments from Bryan Murray as he signed his contract extension
with Ottawa. Murray indicated the Senators are all-in like Chris Moneymaker at the World Poker Championships, and it makes sense with Bobby Ryan and Jason Spezza unrestricted in the summer of 2015. But, in the moves he's tried to make this year, it's been pretty clear they didn't want to add salary. Back in the playoff race, we'll see how this changes.
12. Murray stated Curtis Lazar is an untouchable, "right now." You have to figure two other impressive youngsters, Cody Ceci and Robin Lehner, are too. They don't have a first-rounder this year. If an impactful young player stands between them and getting the player they want, who would Ottawa deal?
13. Great line from Tim Murray after taking the Buffalo job
. Asked if there would be a moratorium on trades until he got to know the roster a bit better, he said no. "If other GMs want to try to take advantage of the new guy, tell them to give me a call," he laughed. Murray added there are no untouchables, but if you want a younger player like Zemgus Girgensons, Tyler Myers or Rasmus Ristolainen, be prepared to make a big offer.
14. Murray was asked if he would try to bring any hockey operations staff from Ottawa to Buffalo. "It's a tough one for me," he said. There are a couple of guys he likes, but "the Senators were good enough to give me permission in-season to come here" and he doesn't want to burn them. So, we'll see how it plays out.
15. It's public knowledge the Sabres are working on removing the interim tag
from Ted Nolan, as a contract extension is being discussed. It sounds like some of the interviewees were asked how they would feel about keeping the coaching staff, so maybe we shouldn't be surprised at that news.
16. When Brian Burke took over in Calgary
, he talked openly about his vision for the team. Asked a similar question, Murray had some interesting comments about the skill he values most: hockey sense. His poster boy for that is Corey Perry. Murray was with the Ducks when Perry was drafted in 2003.
17. "When we drafted Corey, the biggest question was his skating," Murray said. "But, there are plenty of players with great speed who don't know how to use it, because they don't go to the right places. Maybe [Perry] isn't the fastest player, but his great hockey sense makes sure he's always in the right spot. Those are the players we want."
18. Murray had no choice but to take a hard line with Mikhail Grigorenko. You can't come in as a new GM and look soft in your first dispute. This is one spot, however, where Grigorenko's AHL ineligibility hurts both the player and the Sabres. He needs to play against men. I completely understand why Buffalo wouldn't want him going to the KHL, but would Sweden or Switzerland or somewhere else in Europe make sense?
19. Grigorenko's been very clear he wants to play in the NHL. You can see where this is going to become a problem, though, if things don't improve next season. He's got one year left in his entry-level deal and the way it's going, he's not going to be in line for much of a raise. That's where the KHL has the advantage, because it would make more sense for that league to pay than it would for the Sabres. But, Buffalo has to maximize him as an asset, so it benefits the team to find the best place for him to play. Tough spot.
20. Columbus fought its way back into the playoff picture, four back of the wild card with games in hand. They are 4-1 since Nathan Horton joined the group, and he's formed a nice, aggressive line with Artem Anisimov and Boone Jenner. GM Jarmo Kekalainen said Horton's biggest effect is that he's a calm presence. "He's been through everything."
21. The Blue Jackets' lone loss in that span was 6-2 to St. Louis. Liked Kekalainen's take on the Blues: "They have a level we do not have. That's what we have to get to."
22. Kekalainen's a really good quote. Aaron Portzline of The Columbus Dispatch had an interesting piece last week about Jack Johnson's disappointment at not making the U.S. Olympic squad, and the role of Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards, an assistant on the national team. Asked if it was an issue, the GM downplayed it. "We had a meeting and we discussed it...There's still a chance that he gets to the Olympics and his play can determine that." Then, he paused. "I'm not specifically talking about Jack Johnson, but sometimes a player has to look at their own play for the reasons he did not make it." He's been very noticeable (in a good way) since.
23. The big TV audience for the New Year's game may allow the possibility of more Canadian teams, probably as the visitor. Toronto was a test case, and passed big. Montreal makes a lot of sense, because the Canadiens are a big brand and don't seem to be bothered by the cameras on their version of 24/7. Philadelphia's been reported as Washington's opponent next season, but there've been rumblings about Chicago, too.
24. At this time of year, I always like to see what's out there regarding NCAA free agents, but it looks like there isn't as highly regarded a prospect as Danny DeKeyser or Justin Schultz this time around. James van Riemsdyk's brother, Trevor, a defenceman at New Hampshire, is a name I've heard a bit, as is Lake Superior State blue-liner (and broadcaster nightmare) Kevin Czuczman. van Riemsdyk attended a Flyers rookie camp, while Czuczman has skated with the Sabres.
25. Another name out there is Kevin Hayes, taken 24th overall by Chicago in 2010. He is the younger brother of Jimmy, just traded by the Blackhawks to Florida in the Kris Versteeg deal. Kevin has 35 points in 21 games as a senior at Boston College. He has yet to sign and others are curious to see what his plans are.
26. So, how much does the first tiebreaker -- regulation and overtime wins -- really matter to who makes the playoffs? Just ask the Dallas Stars. Since this setup was enacted in 2010-11, the Stars have missed the playoffs three times despite having more ROWs than someone who got there instead. One was the Kings in 2012, the year they won the Stanley Cup.
27. Others who got in despite a tiebreaker disadvantage? Florida as a division winner in 2012, even though Tampa Bay had three more ROWs. Ottawa and the Islanders both made it in 2012-13 despite being behind Winnipeg and Philadelphia. San Jose was 11th in the Western Conference in this stat last season, but still got in and made it to Game 7 of the second round. Maybe this number is not as big as we think.
28. Looked through all of Toronto's games this season to see how its fourth line was used in comparison to opponents. In 39 of 47 games so far, a Maple Leaf forward had less ice time than anyone from the other team. What stands out is that 14 times there were at least two forwards with less time. And, 16 times three forwards were lower. (Note: I eliminated situations where someone was injured early, like Patrick Eaves at the Winter Classic
and Dave Bolland in Vancouver). With the compressed schedule, you can't help but wonder if they are going to need more depth.
29. The scouting community is mourning the loss of Jack Gardiner, who passed away Friday. He was with San Jose at the time of his death, but was also in St. Louis and Toronto. Among his recent finds is Justin Braun, a seventh-round pick in 2007 now playing 21 minutes a night for the Sharks.
30. I can't watch as much junior hockey as I'd like, so I always looked forward to reading Gregg Drinnan's Taking Notes blog. Drinnan, and the rest of the Kamloops Daily News staff, are out of work after the newspaper ceased publication. Hopefully, someone finds room for his stuff, which is comprehensive and excellent.
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