Should the Winnipeg Jets Hold On to Paul Maurice?

Photo by “Krazytea” via Wikimedia Commons

Mark Chipman, Kevin Cheveldayoff, & Co. took a huge step yesterday, firing their first choice in the new Winnipeg Jets coaching history, Claude Noel. Noel has the unfortunate (no, scratch that, earned) legacy of mediocre results, questionable lineup decisions, and the uncanny ability to look like nothing’s going on while standing in a tire fire. Whatever the case, the Jets decided to turn away from the new-coach idea towards a very-seasoned veteran in Paul Maurice. With 1,137 NHL games of coaching experience, and one trip to the Cup Finals (with Carolna in 2002), Maurice is definitely a smart choice if a team’s trying to find itself and build up from the relocation identity.

It’s also significant that Maurice has already endured the relocation process. First breaking into the league at the helm of the Hartford Whalers, he helped that team build up from a series of dismal years and a move from Hartford to North Carolina. Though he’d be fired before he could enjoy the ultimate prize of those efforts (the ‘Canes would win the Cup the year after he left), there is little doubt he has the experience for those that prize that sort of thing.

But that leaves a few hanging questions: is he a good coach? Can he make this a better team? Is there any way we can find answers to those questions?

We can, and we will.

 At the very base level, I’m going to look at Paul Maurice using an historical possession stat, 2-Period Shot Percentage, or 2pS%. Basically, it takes shot differential from only the first two periods in order to avoid score effects (teams “protecting the lead” by sitting back), and it tests out to be a pretty solid possession measure. Just from a very base standpoint, if you were to avoid digging, you’d say Paul Maurice has a 460 W – 457 L  -99 T – 68 OTL because the NHL likes rules that make it look like we’re discussing prison numbers. “Well,” you’d say, “based on that, Maurice is hardly better than a .500 win percentage coach. What’s the point, then?” You’d be right, by those numbers. 2pS% can give us a little bit more nuance, and ground us in possession:

The white line gives us a rough idea of the trend in Maurice’s team number, but what I really take from this chart is this: every year, a coach is given a set of players that needs to be optimized. Garret had a great piece over at Arctic Ice Hockey talking about optimizing the Jets’ lineup, for an example. In many of the years above, it appears that, as each individual season progressed, Maurice seemed to get better and better results from his teams.

The years where that didn’t seem to happen? In 2000-01, the ‘Canes were dinged up all year, especially on defense; in 2002-03, Rod Brind’Amour, one of their most important players (he was playing nearly 24 minutes a game) was lost midway through the season; in 2009-10, forwards Erik Cole and Eric Staal fought a frustrating series of injuries.

We can also look at the sample of seasons he’s had within the BTN Era, from 2007-08 to the present, wherein he’s coached Toronto and Carolina. His possession figures with those teams:

Year Team FenClose Lg Rank
2007-08 TOR 51.3% 8
2008-09 CAR 53.6% 6
2009-10 CAR 47.6% 23
2010-11 CAR 46.7% 25
2011-12 CAR 48.2% 21

Eesh. What happened there? With team possession figures like that, you have to be a little concerned.

But just how much can we attribute to a coach? Aren’t they a function of what they’re given, plus what they do with it? It’s helpful to take this even further, and see if there were situations where Maurice can be compared to another coach dealing with the same group of players. Thankfully, we have four instances where Maurice was either fired or hired mid-season. In 1995-96, he replaced Paul Holmgren as the Whalers’ head coach 12 games into the regular season; in 2003-04, he was fired by the Hurricanes 30 games in; by 2008-09, game 26, he was re-hired to the Hurricanes, replacing the same guy (Peter Laviolette) who had been his replacement; and in 2011-12, after 25 games, he was fired by the Hurricanes mid-season once more. The 12-game sample in 1995-96 is a little light, but overall we can get a pretty good picture of how Maurice compares to his counterparts after a coaching change:

 Maurice versus Others

In four coaching changes, we can see that three of them resulted in the team playing better with Maurice at the helm (and, overall, the teams playing a bit better). It bodes well for the remainder of the season, at least.

There was also a narrative that Maurice is tougher, and brings defense expertise; just looking at the raw 2-Period Shots-against data, it certainly seemed to be that he built strong defensive teams in Hartford and later Carolina, and that he seemed to improve Toronto’s defense (only to have any progress tanked by Vesa Toskala). But when he returned to Carolina in 2008-09, the Canes defense plummeted. So, at best, I’d say he has maybe a slight-positive, mostly mixed record there. It could be especially concerning because Winnipeg has a Toskala of their own…

So what have we learned? Paul Maurice benefits from the fact that any coaching change is a good one for the Jets right now; Noel simply did not seem to know what to do with his players, whether it was motivation, lineups, or identifying talent and playing it. Maurice has plenty of history doing all those things, and bringing considerable success to his teams. There are also those promising in-season trends, that Maurice might actually be pretty good at re-assessment and getting the better players out there after some evaluation. On the other hand, you have to wonder how much of the problem were the players, or the management, versus Maurice himself in Carolina. Perhaps Carolina fans are asking that themselves right now, as they’re once again wallowing in the bottom third of the standings, with no metrics to suggest things will get better.

If I’m a Jets fan (which I am), my bigger concerns are two-fold:

  1. Just looking above, it seems that the players a coach has to work with is more important than the coach themselves. And their abilities, and ability to stay healthy, can affect our (and management’s) judgment as well. Would Maurice have done better with plus-possession players Alex Burmistrov and/or Kyle Wellwood, or without the obligation of a franchise contract like Ondrej Pavelec’s? Would Noel? We’ll never know. We do know that Noel contributed to the way things played out with those three players, though.
  2. Can Cheveldayoff and the rest of the Jets management be trusted to make a proper assessment of Maurice? Noel was their first choice, and they gave him what seemed like a very long leash. They’ve drafted pretty well, but they have not valued NHL talent very well and watched as Noel valued NHL talent even worse. Yesterday, for instance, Cheveldayoff said the team was “trending in the wrong direction,” yet, in fact, possession-wise and with Byfuglien on defense and Kane clicking with Scheifele, they were actually improving. These next couple months will tell whether they knew that, and Maurice what to do with it.

In sum, the Winnipeg Jets made the right move by getting rid of coaching that had proven to be incapable of making the right kind of assessments of its players. Paul Maurice seems to be capable of doing that, assuming management gives him the right pieces. Time will tell, but overall this appears to be a solid move by the Jets.

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