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Paul Maurice ‘Excited’ About What is Ahead for the Florida Panthers

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Florida Panthers coach Paul Maurice talks with his players during the second period of last Sunday’s game against the Seattle Kraken in Sunrise. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

SUNRISE — It sounds as if Paul Maurice has heard some of the criticisms thrown his way when it comes to the start of his first season behind the Florida Panthers bench.

It has been a slow start, Maurice will acknowledge that.

He looks at the standings at least once a day so, yeah, the team’s current place in the league hierarchy is hard to ignore.

But in talking with Florida Hockey Now a few days before his team embarked on a tough four-game stretch against three of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, Maurice said what excited him about taking over the Panthers still excites him some 30 games in.

“What intrigued me most about this situation is the exact situation we are in now,’’ Maurice said on Wednesday morning, a day before his team played without leading scorer Matthew Tkachuk due to a rampant flu bug swirling about.

“(Bill) Zito was very open that there was going to be some adversity this year. There was going to be some change and it was going to be hard. That was a big part of the appeal. Can you ride that, can you get through the tough time? …

“It has been what I thought it would be and I am quietly excited about where it is going to go. No one can sustain this injury run that we’re on and if it goes all year, we’re in trouble. But I have to believe we’ll heal and be better for it.”

The Panthers have weathered some storms already and the clouds have yet to part.

But Paul Maurice sees a clearing in the future — and it is not too far down the road.

The Panthers have been saying that they have no excuses for their pedestrian start to this season but when you look at some of the things they have been through, it is understandable.

Maurice and general manager Bill Zito both said before this season started that these Panthers were not last year’s Panthers.

This team was not going to steamroll its way through the schedule and set all sorts of franchise records along the way.

They simply are not built the same. They are not playing the same way, for sure, and a lot of that is by design. Following a shaky postseason start against Washington and a disastrous sweep at the hands of the Lightning, the Panthers want to be different.

The Panthers have a long-term view of who they are and who they want to be.

”Bill understands the game at a very high level and knows exactly how we played after every game,” Maurice said.

And knowing this would be a season of transition, a season of changing styles and personnel, is one reason Maurice is here in the first place.

He said as much the day he was hired, telling FHN that one reason the Panthers went for his experience — no active coach in the league has coached more games and only three more have in NHL history — was because he would have the wherewithal to stand firm in the face of adversity.

“This was a 122-point team so people are going to expect 123 points and five more goals next year,’’ Maurice said back in June.

“That’s a part of the reason that I’m here to understand that we have to get in front of it if things get a little rocky and the challenges get a little tough.”

Maurice could not have pictured his team going through so much, so soon.

A conversation with new Florida Panthers coach Paul Maurice

On Saturday night, Sasha Barkov appeared to injure his left knee after getting whacked by Nico Hischier in the faceoff circle in the final seconds of the first.

Florida had already played without their captain and best player for seven games due to a severe bout of pneumonia.

The Panthers also lost Aaron Ekblad for 10 games at the start of the season, have been without Anthony Duclair since the summer and have battled a flu bug the past couple of weeks.

Not to mention the five games Florida had to start down a man due to salary cap restraints.

And what about that schedule?

It, too, should get better.

“The record is not what it was last year but the regulation wins aren’t that far off, the analytics are great and we’re all banged up,’’ Maurice said.

“And the schedule is gross. You know, we will have half of our home schedule left on Jan. 27. That’s great. But we will have paid for that. We pay for it until the 26th.”

It has now been a year since Maurice abruptly resigned as coach of the Winnipeg Jets after parts of nine seasons behind their bench, guiding that franchise to its biggest moments — including ones played in Atlanta.

Maurice said he felt he was not reaching that team in the ways he needed to, nor had in the past, and that the Jets needed a new voice behind the bench.

In the past 12 months, he has gone from coaching and living in Winnipeg to helping his family move to South Florida and a new challenge with the Panthers.

He did not think he would be coaching the Panthers — or anywhere else — the day he resigned on Dec. 17, 2021.

”Not until the phone rang and I talked to Bill,” Maurice said. “Coaches know before anyone else when it is time and I knew earlier. You fall in love with all the things that are a part of a team and I knew it was time.”

Paul Maurice Returns to Winnipeg with the Florida Panthers

Looking at Maurice’s long coaching road, this is the best situation he has ever taken over.

In 1995, the Hartford Whalers fired Paul Holmgren 12 games into their season and  promoted the 28-year-old Maurice, who was in his first year as an NHL assistant coach, to take over.

Maurice coached the final 70 games of that season and ended up keeping the job — becoming the final coach in Whalers’ history as the franchise moved to Carolina in 1997.

He not only guided the move to North Carolina, but helped the Hurricanes become relevant leading them to the Stanley Cup Final in 2002.

Maurice then took over a really bad Toronto team and went back to Carolina when the Canes were rebuilding after winning the Cup.

In 2014, after taking a break from coaching, Maurice replaced the fired Claude Noel in Winnipeg — a franchise which never won a playoff game in Atlanta much less a series — and eventually led the Jets to the Western Conference finals against Vegas in 2018.

”It was right for them and right for me,” Maurice said of his decision to leave the Jets in the middle of last season. “I have been at this long enough to know when I can move the needle with a team and when I cannot. We had passed that point. This was a franchise that had never won a playoff game and missed the playoffs a lot. They wobbled. We had to build it.”

Florida is obviously a much better team than any of those teams Maurice initially took over — cap-based free agent defections, injuries, the flu or whatever.

Maurice is excited for what could be and it is, believe it or not, based on what he has seen thus far.

”I understood what we were going to go through because I have been through it before,’’ he said. “It is different because when we get healthy, we will look considerably different than we do right now. We’ll play a different style of game because we’ll be able to do different things. But you have to keep the room on task. I understand the tension and the pressure of the day-to-day, but this room is far better than I even anticipated it being.

“They are good bunch of guys. They are staying in the fight, treat each other really well, are committed to each other and to Florida. This program is miles ahead of where it was three or four years ago. They love playing hockey here. It is hockey first. This is a hockey market. They’re into it. It’s a little bit tough right now and I understand it. And I enjoy the challenge of it.”

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