The Florida Panthers decided on a new head coach Wednesday, surprising some observers by not making interim coach Andrew Brunette a permanent fixture behind their bench, but instead going with veteran Paul Maurice.
There are plenty of great head coaching candidates out there – Brunette included – but it makes sense that Panthers GM Bill Zito decided on Maurice, who has 1,665 games of NHL experience, as well as two conference final appearances and one Stanley Cup Final to his credit . For this Florida team, at this point in its competitive cycle, Zito didn’t want someone learning on the job. And Maurice brings a cool, calm factor that the veteran-laden Panthers roster can emulate on the ice.
Zito could’ve gone off the mainstream path and gone with an unproven commodity, the way the Edmonton Oilers did this past season when they replaced Dave Tippett with Jay Woodcroft. However, sticking with Brunette, especially after the Panthers were steamrolled by Tampa Bay in a second-round sweep this spring, was clearly not Zito’s first choice. There may come a day when Brunette is the right choice for a franchise, but the longer the hiring process took, the more it became apparent Zito wanted someone who had been through the wringer before, and came out of it with a legitimate Cup frontrunner.
With that said, consider: the 55-year-old Maurice has, remarkably in the industry, coached more than 23 seasons at the NHL level. He’s seen it all. He’s also one of the rare breeds of coaches who can take a step back and claim responsibility for his positive results, or lack thereof. That’s what he did one-third of the way through the 2021-22 campaign, stepping down as Winnipeg’s head coach after eight seasons guiding the Jets. Maurice recognized a malaise that had crept into the dressing room, and he understood he couldn’t get them over the hump, so he left, despite having term left on a contract extension he signed in February of 2020.
Do you know how many coaches would’ve ignored the warning signs Maurice saw and simply carried on under the terms of their contract? I know a few. Job security is so hard to get in the modern-day NHL, most coaches – who, let’s face it, have some type of ego – are not going to voluntarily give it up. Demonstrating he could do that showed guts and maturity on Maurice’s part.
But the notion Maurice was burnt out after his time in Winnipeg was always tough to put much stock in. We’re talking about a hockey lifer here. In the end, he took a break of about half a year, and now he’s back, with a team that posted the best regular-season record (58-18-6) in the entire league last season.
Nothing against Winnipeg or its lovely citizens, but that’s a step up for Maurice. The Jets will be in the mix for a playoff spot in the Central Division next year no matter who they hire as Maurice’s permanent replacement, but few expect them to be at the top of any group of standings. The Panthers, on the other hand, will be expecting Maurice to push them deep into the post-season. Nothing less than a conference final appearance will suffice for Zito et al. That’s a challenge Maurice undoubtedly welcomes.
The Panthers have just $3 million in salary-cap space this summer, and they have only 17 players under contract. Zito is likely interested in moving goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, but the goalie’s four years and $40-million left on his contract makes Zito likely the only NHL GM interested in moving it. If Florida has any hope of bringing back star forward Claude Giroux, the Panthers are going to have to sacrifice other cogs; for instance, winger Patric Hornqvist could be moved, although he has a modified no-trade clause. In any case, Florida is going to be stripped of some of its depth in 2022-23. Maurice will have to do more with less.
Is he up to the challenge? We think he is. You don’t get to coach nearly a quarter-century in hockey’s best league if you’re not always learning and adapting. That’s a strength you can only show over time. That’s what Brunette didn’t have.
The Panthers finally got out of the first round this season. The last time they did that was in 1995-96 – Maurice’s first year as an NHL head coach. That’s how long he’s been in the trenches, and that wealth of experience is what Zito is banking on.