Top Shelf: Maurice trying to change the culture in Winnipeg

3:40 PM, Jan 14, 2014   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA ( - When your city is looking to land an NHL franchise, the old saying "beggars can't be choosers" is a good one to keep in mind.

To say the Atlanta Thrashers weren't exactly the gold standard for professional hockey teams is an understatement, but the city of Winnipeg was eager to bring an NHL club back to Manitoba. It couldn't afford to be picky.

However, it's been nearly three years since the club uprooted from Atlanta to Winnipeg, and the Jets are still trying to rid themselves of the Thrashers' losing ways.

Enter Paul Maurice, who has a chance to make a respectable NHL club out of the nascent Jets, something his predecessor Claude Noel couldn't make happen in two-plus years as Winnipeg's head coach.

Noel was given the job shortly after news of Winnipeg's relocation from Atlanta was made official in the spring of 2011. The move from the American South, where professional hockey is at best an afterthought, to the Canadian prairie made sense for the NHL but the exodus has done little to change the club's fortunes.

The Thrashers made the playoffs just once during their 11-season run in Atlanta and that was in the spring of 2007, when the New York Rangers unceremoniously swept them out of the postseason. At this stage, a four-game playoff sweep would seem like a vast improvement over the cycle of mediocrity that has made its way from Atlanta to Winnipeg.

At only 46 years of age, Maurice brings with him a wealth of coaching experience. He was 28 when he landed his first job at the NHL level with the Hartford Whalers in 1995-96 and a few years ago Maurice became the youngest coach in league history to reach 1,000 games.

Best known for his time in Carolina, where Maurice spent two separate stints (1997-2003 and 2008-11) leading the Hurricanes, the new Winnipeg bench boss is mainly tasked with getting the Jets into the playoffs. However, getting his teams to the postseason has proven elusive for Maurice in recent years. Since leading the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup Finals in the spring of 2002, Maurice only has reached the playoffs on one occasion, when he brought Carolina to the Eastern Conference finals in 2009.

With Winnipeg currently sitting in a tie for last place in the tough Central Division, qualifying for the playoffs in 2014 will prove to be a difficult task although not an impossible one. After coaching the Jets to a 5-1 victory over the visiting Phoenix Coyotes on Monday, Maurice finds his new club sitting 10 points behind Minnesota for the eighth and final playoff seed in the Western Conference.

The Jets seem to have enough talent to be a playoff team, but clearly there was a missing ingredient during the Noel years. Since the relocation, the club always seemed to take one step forward and two steps back, as Noel wound up with a mark of 80-79-18 in Winnipeg.

"It became apparent that things were not trending in the right direction," said Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff on his reasons for firing Noel. "It's the consistency factor. We always questioned ourselves internally -- why .500? Why one ahead and two back?"

Right away, Maurice praised the size and skill of the team he was inheriting but also felt the team hadn't displayed a dedication to playing team defense under Noel.

After he picked up his first win behind the Winnipeg bench, Maurice also spoke about his team becoming better at dealing with adversity. Although responding to adverse situations was not a strong suit of Noel's Jets, the club displayed the quality on Monday when they went down 1-0 to the Coyotes in the first period before answering less than a minute later with a goal of their own.

"They did the one thing we had talked about that when adversity came to the doorstep that next goal was huge," Maurice said. "The bench didn't get quiet, we stayed positive and that's the start of the foundation of handling adversity over the course of the game and sticking with it."

Maurice first needs to inject some much-needed confidence into his new team before thinking about the playoffs. After all, the Western Conference is looking much deeper than the East following the onset of realignment and there could be teams with more talent than Winnipeg sitting out the postseason this season.

The good news for Maurice and the Jets is the city of Winnipeg isn't going to abandon this team anytime soon. Unlike the previous situation in Atlanta, hockey is a big priority for the people of Manitoba. The MTS Centre is still getting filled to capacity on a nightly basis and the Jets can always count on the people of Winnipeg to support this club better than the fans in Atlanta did.

Still, it's about time somebody moved this franchise out of the Thrashers' shadow. The Jets hope Maurice is the man to deliver that clean break with the past.

The Sports Network

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