Paul Maurice preaching simplicity with Jets 3 wins away from Cup final
Winnipeg coach's style has changed immensely over the years
Paul Maurice experienced a hockey epiphany five years ago in the hallway of a Kontinental Hockey League arena.
Then the head coach of Metallurg — located in Magnitogorsk, a city in Russia's industrial heartland where Europe meets Asia — wanted to commend 21-year-old Pavel Zdunov for his efforts after one particular game.
When the language barrier didn't allow it, something clicked.
"His parents had passed away, he had a special-needs brother that he cared for himself, and he played pro hockey," Maurice recalled. "He was just a great kid and he had played [well]. I wanted to acknowledge that and couldn't because there was absolutely no English. I might have had more Russian than he had English.
"It really made me think: 'I have never spoken enough to the players, right?' Reached out for the good things, make sure they know. [I didn't] throw around a lot of compliments, so I do that way more ... try to acknowledge those guys."
Now the head coach of the Winnipeg Jets, who will look to go up 2-0 against the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 2 of the Western Conference final on Monday, Maurice might have had an even more important moment of clarity while working as an assistant for Ralph Krueger with Team Europe at the World Cup of Hockey in 2016.
"We were OK, but we played a really simple game, coached in a simple style, and had good success with it," he added. "As a [Jets] staff we spent the entire summer figuring out what's the simplest thing that we can do with our group to be good — in all areas of all zones, all parts of our game. Shave it right down to a simpler teaching message when we talk about those things. We felt that was the only way we could play faster, and we had speed.
Long road to simplicity
"It started in Russia with maybe some communication, but the World Cup with Ralph, kind of a light went off. I still cut 130 [video] clips. Ralph would only let me show 10, which I thought was insanity, but he was onto something."
That communication and simplicity are big reasons why the young, fast and skillful Jets find themselves as one of only four NHL teams still playing.
They disposed of the Minnesota Wild in five games to open the playoffs before getting past the Presidents Trophy-winning Nashville Predators in a gruelling, back-forth-series that went the distance.
"We are a team that skates well, and has confidence to make the plays that are there," said Maurice, whose club had the second-best record in the regular season. "When we're on our game we make the right choice."
Drafted by the Atlanta Thrashers in 2006 before moving with the team to Winnipeg, Bryan Little said Maurice's system has been basic and to the point since he was hired partway through the 2013-14 season.
"He stressed a few important things when he came in," said the 30-year-old centre. "Once we started doing those things repetitively we started to be successful. You saw it starting to pay off this year.
"Don't complicate things out there too much. Be the harder-working, faster team, and keep it simple."
The second-youngest coach in NHL history at just 28 when he took over the Hartford Whalers in 1995, Maurice has coached 20 seasons with three teams. He's now made the conference final three times and the Stanley Cup final once, but has also been fired on three separate occasions — twice by the Carolina Hurricanes — and has had to take a step back to stay in the game with stints in the AHL and KHL.
So what does he appreciate now about being three wins from the ultimate prize compared to when he first came into the league?
"How darn hard it is to get there," Maurice said. "The short answer is it's special. You want to be at your best, you want to perform at your best, the players, the coaches, we all want our 'A' game.
"But we want to be able to enjoy the process of getting ready for it."
Maurice's Jets certainly enjoyed the series clincher on the road against Nashville in the last round, a thorough 5-1 demolition of a team that finished the season just three points (117 to 114) ahead of them atop the standings.
"That's what you saw in Game 7 from us," he said. "That we'd gotten to the point where, yeah, there's a lot of pressure and it's a big stage, but they found a way to have fun before the puck dropped, to be excited about it."
Maurice's other teams worked hard and grinded out results, but this one is different.
"The most skilled group that I've ever coached, and it really wouldn't be close," he said. "It's way more fun to coach a group like this. We don't really manage the mistakes. We're trying to find places to be good."
And good — more than good, really — is what they've been this season and into the playoffs for a coach who has changed with the times, and can't envision himself anywhere else.
"It's the only thing I've done since I was 20 years old," Maurice joked. "My skill set's not really applicable to a whole lot of other things.
"You can't swear on the job in a lot of places, I don't think. I'm kind of tied into it now."