CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – This isn’t Paul Maurice’s first rodeo.
The newest bench boss of the Florida Panthers has been a head coach in the NHL for quite a while.
How long, you ask?
Well, his first head coaching gig was with the Hartford Whalers, a team that played its final game in 1997.
Most recently, Maurice spent the past nine seasons coaching the Winnipeg Jets. In a shocking move, he stepped down last December, relieving himself of his coaching duties while saying the team needed a “new voice.”
It’s not often that a coach will voluntarily leave his post. Actually, it’s downright rare.
These are some of the most coveted jobs in sports, which is why coaches will (almost) always get fired before they ever think about leaving on their own.
Sure, there is the occasional retirement, but other than that a coach will usually need to be handed a pink slip before graciously, or sometimes not so graciously, bowing out.
In Maurice’s case, he felt he was no longer the right person to lead the group in Winnipeg. It’s an extremely mature and self-aware decision to make, one that takes guts.
But it didn’t mean he was ready to hang up his whistle and call it a career.
Maurice is still only 55 years old and has plenty of gas left in the tank, but after spending parts of the past four decades coaching, he decided it was going to take the right kind of opportunity to lure him back behind the bench.
Enter General Manager Bill Zito and the Florida Panthers.
“I only wanted to go back and work at a place that I thought I could get better, that I could eventually be a much better coach by the end of this year than I was when I came in,” Maurice said Wednesday. “That’s where the driver of this was for me.”
When Maurice discussed the factors that led to him taking the job in Florida, the first name he mentioned was Zito.
The Panthers GM has taken a very hands-on approach since being hired in September of 2020, re-shaping the roster while constantly communicating and collaborating with his front office and coaching staff.
It’s something that instantly attracted Maurice to the team and the opportunities it could present.
“Very active general manager,” Maurice said of Zito. “He asks an awful lot of questions, he has a lot of ideas, and that is the environment that I think that I would work best in. He’s going to ask you a bunch of questions, (and if) you don’t have the answer, you go find the answer. And all of a sudden, you’re better.”
Maurice joins a Florida squad fresh off the most successful season in the franchise’s history.
The Panthers were the 2022 Atlantic Division Champions and won the Presidents’ Trophy, which is handed to the NHL’s best regular season team each season.
While Florida did win its first playoff series since 1996, defeating the Washington Capitals in six games in the opening round of the postseason, the Panthers were then swept out of round two in a very unceremonious fashion by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“This team has still got some lessons it’s got to learn,” Maurice said.
Those lessons will start being implemented when Florida hits the ice for training camp on Thursday at the Panthers Ice Den in Coral Springs.
The plan, according to Maurice, is to take the successful things Florida did last season, a year they led the NHL in scoring, and add a bit of grit to their game.
A bit more toughness.
Some of that heavy hockey which players tend to dislike facing on a regular basis.
“We’re going to push them hard here at camp,” Maurice said. “We’re going to develop parts of the game that maybe aren’t particularly fun to develop, but they’ll enjoy that because they get to keep all the other parts they’re great at.”
Change may not always be a welcomed concept, but the Panthers culture that has been created over the past two years only has one goal in mind: winning.
Last year’s team wasn’t good enough, not by the new standards that have been set in South Florida. Something had to be different in order for the team to reach its ultimate goals.
It’s something that the returning players understand and, after the way last season ended, are ready to embrace with open arms.
“I think we’re all on the same page,” Panthers captain Sasha Barkov said when asked about the new coaching staff. “We’re trying to do the same thing, trying to make this team better and trying to take the next step.”
Added Maurice: “We want to make sure that we build a game here, one that suits our talent. We’re not going to change styles, (we’re going to) build a game here that we can play past April, that we can have success with.”
The 2022-23 season will be Maurice’s 25th as an NHL head coach.
He’s still waiting to hoist the Stanley Cup, as are many of the players on Florida’s roster.
Perhaps it’s a mountain they will climb together.
The journey to the summit begins now.