SUNRISE — When new Florida Panthers coach Paul Maurice resigned from his post with the Winnipeg Jets, he cited a loss for the love of the game and his team needing a new voice as reasons why he left.
Two months into his ninth season as head coach, the Jets found themselves outside of the playoff picture with a 13-11-5 record and, after a long period of debating it, Maurice decided it was time to go.
“Sometimes when you take over a team, it’s kind of like you’re starting at the bottom of a mountain and you’re trying to push a rock up to the top,” Maurice said when he resigned.
“You can only get them to a certain place. When you’ve had a 26-year coaching professional hockey career, you know they need a new voice. They need someone to help them get to that next place.”
The Panthers hope Maurice is the coach who can get them to where they want to be.
On Thursday morning, he was officially introduced as the 18th coach in franchise history and he said just talking to general manager Bill Zito about the possibility of coaching these Panthers got him as excited to get going as he has ever been in a long career coaching hockey at all levels of the game.
“I’m excited about the challenge,’’ Maurice said during a press conference Thursday morning in Sunrise.
“I’ve watched this team perform strongly in the playoffs last year and then to watch the progression from year to year, you have to be excited as a coach and you want to be a part of that.”
Maurice took over for a Winnipeg team that held an 80-79-13 record and no playoff appearances since moving from Atlanta.
He turned that team around to the tune of a 272-160-54 record with five postseason appearances and a trip to the Western Conference final — but that was as far as he could take them.
During the playoff bubble during the Covid-shortened 2019-20 season, Maurice said he began to not enjoy going to the rink as much, just two years removed from taking the Jets to the conference title round.
“That was the very first time I could say I did not enjoy coming to the rink,” he said. “If you lose some of that passion for the game, you can still be good, but you can’t be as good as you could be. That’s where I feel like I am.”
Maurice had conversations with Winnipeg ownership and management on if he was the right guy for the job and team success kept him on board for a little while longer than he wanted to.
He believed a head coach should only have a shelf life of six years, barring a Stanley Cup victory, and after eight-plus seasons, he was the second longest-tenured coach behind two-time champion Jon Cooper.
“I critique my own performance, so most nights, when you walk off the bench and the team lost the game, I’m not looking at the players’ performance,” Maurice said during his introductory press conference Thursday.
“What did I do that day where I missed something?
“I judge my own performance and some of the times it can be perceived as a lack of efficacy at times, so you push harder and you get this big return and every time you push that button with a slightly less return, it gets a little harder. It’s a little harder to drive it.
“I know those players never quit, they worked hard right until the end, but I know that I wasn’t producing at a level that I expect myself to produce. I expect myself to have an impact in the room and be able to change things and I didn’t feel I was having that effect.”
After a 4-2 loss to the Buffalo Sabres he felt it was time, but “This is a far longer runway on this than a loss to Buffalo,” he said.
Maurice left the door open for an NHL return and it did eventually happen.
Albeit, in an unconventional manner.
In January, he sat down and watched a Panthers game with his wife Michelle and said “that’s an exciting team.” She then asked “does this team interest you?”
He said yes.
Sure enough, when June rolled around, he ended up on Zito’s shortlist for candidates for the team’s coaching position.
After first talking to Zito 10 days ago, it did not take long for him to get fired up.
“In the first 15 or 20 minutes of talking, I felt the fit here. It has been a great experience,’’ Maurice said.
“I don’t know how much you’ve talked to Bill, but he can jack you up about hockey. I was in a lather and ready to go about an hour into the meeting. That is what drives me and that’s what I love. I want to be around smart, passionate people. …
“It’s not just about winning, it is about building a destination franchise for the fans and not just the players we can draw here. The passion comes out very quickly. I was all in.”
Family, of course, was a contributing factor as well.
His youngest son was accepted at the University of Miami and immediately fell in love with the campus when he visited.
His college search immediately ended when he stepped foot in Coral Gables.
The move allowed for Maurice to be close to his son, but not too close so he can still enjoy his freedom.
Most importantly, the opportunity brought back his love for the game.
“I was only going to a place where I can make a difference and I could be a part of something: Community, team franchise, because I want that passion in my life,” Maurice said.
“I want that juice. That’s what fires you up, gets you to the rink on time and [Zito] excelled at that, he pushes my buttons. He figured me out real fast.”
After leaving a situation where he felt he pushed a team as far as he could, Maurice believes he can take the Panthers to the next level.
Florida is coming off of its greatest regular season of all time, its first Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history, but Zito knew it was apparent that they needed the right guy to push the team the next level.
Both Zito and Maurice saw the fit.
“There are a number of very powerful teams in this league. Florida is now one of them,” Maurice said.”Going back to Detroit in the mid-90s, it’s also true about Pittsburgh and what Tampa Bay went through, amassing the talent is a very difficult thing to do.
“Then there’s the next phase and it’s not measured by regular season points or goals scored. It’s that transition into the investment of the entire group to drive yourself hard enough that when adversity comes, you’re ready for it. You earn the right to survive in that adversity.”