On Monday evening, the Carolina Hurricanes held their annual season ticket holder party at the RBC Center. As part of the activities, head coach Paul Maurice provided a "State of the Canes" update. TV analyst Tripp Tracy facilitated the interview, which lasted well over 45 minutes and included questions from Tripp and from the audience. To set the appropriate context, this was a low-key and festive fan event, filled with lots of joking, laughter and side stories (along with distractions from errant fan slapshots, since the stage was set up directly behind the south goal).
Just a note, this interview preceded the Patrick O'Sullivan waiver and the Ryan Carter trade.
Following are excerpts of Maurice's comments from the interview.
Tripp Tracy: We are at the quarter point, coming off a tough schedule, can you give us a state of the union of the Carolina Hurricanes?
Paul Maurice: A bunch of things happened to us this summer. We got very, very young. We shaved about 5 years per man off our team. We were comfortable with that based on the way the team played at the end of last year. Then the schedule came out, and that brought some concerns. We thought the trip to Europe was going to be a good thing. We knew the trip would be tough, but in talking with the coaches around the league who have been through it, it's not when you get back, it's the month after you get back. Which was when they sent us to the west coast.
Through 20 games, I know what the record is, but more importantly, we needed to come out of that with some confidence... in the team, and the players that we have, and the style of game we're trying to get to, and what we're trying to build. I'm as happy about the team as any team I've coached, I really am. I know we've got some ups and downs, but the way our players have handled all of those difficulties has been exceptional. The trip to Europe was great, and even the trip out west with so many young players and for a lot of these guys it's all brand new... the airplane is new, the hotels are new, the travel is new. I think for some of them they just think it's life in the NHL, you fly all over the world and you don't sleep. Some guys felt it harder, and some guys felt it better, but it really was a great experience and I enjoyed it very much.
Tripp Tracy: You've coached some great teams, but more specifically, what is it about this team that is making you enjoy them so much?
Paul Maurice: The European trip was great, and a lot was about the team getting to know each other, and a bit of that stayed in our room. The fun part of coaching is walking through the room and somebody is ripping on somebody else and they're laughing and spending time together. When you walk in the meal room, you want to see different people sitting at the tables every meal. You don't want the same four guys sitting in the corner talking. And this group does that, they can pick on each other unilaterally, everyone gets a shot, and they enjoy each other. They do it in practice as well. Guys are learning there are certain days that if you have a tough night before, you need to come to practice and shake your way into a good mood and get that energy back. There are days when you're very serious and it's not all a lot of fun. There are days where you need to pick somebody up and recognize that somebody's struggling in the room, and it is so much more effective when the players reach out. I see that with this group. There's more chatter on the plane, and there's more chatter on the buses. There's so much more enthusiasm on the ice at practice, in the locker room, just being around them, and it's a lot more fun for the coaches.
* * *
Tripp Tracy: You will be coaching your 1000th game in the NHL on Sunday. What have you learned in games 998, 999, and 1000 that may not have been there in games 1, 2 and 3?
Paul Maurice: Part of it is I'm older than everybody in the locker room now, and I also think a lot of it changed when I had kids. I really think that changed the way I thought about things. I wasn't just giving it to someone, it was someone's kid that I was screaming at. I've always felt that if you're really honest with your players, and you're straight and direct with them, they'll respond to that. But then you also learn that everybody is different, there are certain players that are really nice people that play better when you grind them, when you're on them about everything, and there are some tough guys that are the opposite. And you learn which guys you can get after and which guys you can't. You can deal with anybody any way you want, but if they know you care about them more than just as players, then they will take criticism any way you want to give it. As long as they know there's something more than you just trying to get to your end.
* * *
Tripp Tracy: In practice and in games, how do you approach the team differently with such a young group?
Paul Maurice: What is exciting for me, and should be exciting for the fans, is that this is the core now of the team that's going to play together for 10 years, and it can be a good team. The foundation is set for this year and next year, and it is going to carry this team for 10 years. As to what you're trying to teach them, the system and the hockey and all the individual stuff they're going to learn, but they have to learn the difference between when they fought when they battled hard and when they haven't. That may be the most important thing: know how you played. And once you've seen what that acceptable level is, then they can get better and hold each other accountable, and that's when the coach is not that involved in the locker room, that's when you have a good team. Peer pressure is far more powerful than a coach coming in yelling and screaming. That peer pressure, those key guys in the room driving the pace, driving what's right, that's what we're trying to establish.
Last night's game [Nashville] was a real important game for our team. We had to play 65 minutes of very fast, very physical hockey against Pittsburgh. It took a long time to get to the airport and get back, it's 3 in 4 nights, and they're waiting for us. Nashville is a difficult team, they play defense first, and they play defense hard. It's difficult to move the puck up and down the ice. Most teams, a lot of nights, would just quit, or they'll try to cheat or open their game up, and they get beat, and on some nights they get beat bad. They went into Montreal and beat them 3-0 because Montreal didn't want to play that game, and we played that game. It wasn't pretty, and that's not the game I want us to play every night, because we have more offense that we can deliver. But it wasn't happening in that game and it wasn't going to happen. That gives me a real sense of where this team can go, even though we're young, because if they won't play that game, then they're really 2 or 3 years away from really getting a chance to win. If they can figure out and have a willingness to grind their way through the ugly game, they then have a chance to win.
* * *
Tripp Tracy: Tell what the fans might not know about Eric Staal and the adjustment he's made to become captain.
Paul Maurice: He's the youngest captain I've ever had, and he's also the youngest captain while I'm coaching the youngest team so there are some challenges. He has been outstanding. You all know that he's a very competitive guy. He takes very seriously the position he's in and that all the eyes are on him. He's the offensive driver of the team, and when he's not doing that, he takes it to heart. He is a driven guy. He has such a presence, he is so wired on the bench. Sometimes that can be hard for other young players around him because they're not at that level, they're not able to do what he can do, and it's intimidating. But what he's done is really temper that. He's had some nights where he knew he wasn't great. The word is cheating but it's not accurate, he's trying to force offensive plays and they're not there at times, and now he's starting to recognize he can't do all that.
Tripp and I were both in Detroit in the early to mid-eighties when Steve Yzerman was the new young captain of the Detroit Red Wings. While we were there they were trying to run him out of town because they couldn't wait to get rid of the guy, and now there's a bronze statue in downtown Detroit, because of his leadership. It's so ironic what can happen in a young man's career. At that age, and when this building gets full, that's a lot of pressure for a young man. It has nothing to do with what you're paying anybody, it's the personal pressure, and he's done a really good job not pushing that pressure out to the people around him at inappropriate times. He's learning, and he's getting better. He wants to win, and he wants to win here. He loves it here, his family is here, he's very committed to this team, and we have a great captain here.
* * *
Tripp Tracy: Talk a little about the fan connection that exists here in Raleigh. What is it about this community that makes the connection here unique?
Paul Maurice: I think what it comes from is that this isn't a natural fit. I was on the plane with Mr. Karmanos and Mr. Rutherford the very first time we came to Raleigh. This area was just trees, and a big red hole in the ground, and I'm thinking I'm not sure I can see the rink. Then came the Greensboro days, and this is a non-traditional market, and there are other sports that are exciting, and then it took some time. Then the fans started to accept it, and you could feel it, and the players could start to feel it, and they became Hurricane players and began to realize that this was our home. Once you're accepted you're always happier and nicer to the folks who accept you. It's not like we came here and were an established team and the fans show up whether you win or lose, there's a relationship and it wasn't given. There was a lot of faith in this building. It's like a family where you have your good days and your not so good days. There is something special there, and there is something special about this building. Nobody gets to appreciate it, but you can't imagine what it's like on the bench when this building gets going. I've been in some of the most famous buildings in the playoffs, this plays goes as good as any of them, everyone should have a chance to sit down here and feel that buzz.
* * *
Questions from the audience...
Audience: How would you as coach describe the way you want this team to play, and how will we as fans know you're playing the way you're supposed to?
Paul Maurice: Defensively, one mistake shouldn't beat you. So if we have a defenseman pinch in, and we want the defense to pinch hard because we want to be aggressive, sometimes they're going to do that and they're not going to have the right coverage. But one mistake shouldn't be a breakaway. One mistake shouldn't be a three-on-one. If we make a mistake there should be two or three guys humping to get back to cover that up.
Offensively, I would like to see us finish scrums in front of the net with as many people laying on top of each other as possible. We find right now that we're standing two guys to the sides of the post too much, or we're moving out when the puck wants to move in. So those are two things I'm looking for. How many pile-ups do we have in front of the net, and if we make a mistake, is it clearly a chance. And I would say that two weeks ago it was, and in our last two or three games it was not. In Pittsburgh and last night we played a reasonably tight game.
Then the other thing is, we have two or three guys on our team that hit: Timmy Gleason, Tuomo Ruutu, and Chad LaRose (within reason). I also like to see players do something that are slightly out of character. Sergei Samsonov went down in Pittsburgh the other night and blocked a shot, and you don't see that happen a whole lot, and that's great stuff for the guys. If we had players who were more proficient in the physical aspects of the game we'd like to see that as well, but we want to be careful with that too. That's a nice way of saying we don't mind a fight, but be in a position to win.
* * *
Audience: What's it like to coach a kid like Jeff Skinner, and can he keep up with that level of play all year?
Paul Maurice: You never know with an 18-year-old kid. I think he can, in fact I think he's going to get better. He is such a smart player, and this game is different from any game he's ever played. The systems are different, the quickness is different, the size, the speed, everything is different for him and he's 18. He does things that nobody else on the team does. The spin-o-rama here last night in front of the net. I watch those things close because you're starting to see people now trying to get him. O'Brien here last night tried to take his head off at the blue line. So now they know about him, and are trying to get to him, and they haven't yet, and there's a reason for that. Some of it is the way he moves, the way he sees the ice. I'm usually pretty good at picking where I think a guy can get to, and I don't even want to set a bar where this guy can be at, because he is, essentially, a star. He is that good.
Dealing with an 18-year-old, it's different, and when I walk into the room and look at him I go, "how old are you?" Because he looks so young. But there's a couple of things about him. He has an incredible family, very, very grounded, I have no concerns about how he's handling this because he is modest, he is as humble as you can imagine. He's a really good human being. Erik Cole has been a real good mentor for him. Everybody in that room watches out for him, and for each other. Old man Brandon Sutter is 21, so he can take him under his wing. We have a lot of guys who are almost in his situation, so the players have to take care of him and have to look out for each other. I check in with him, most of what I talk to him about is hockey, but young players don't want to stand and talk to the coach. They don't want to be seen standing beside the coach, they all want to sit in the back of the room.
* * *
Audience: Faceoffs haven't been very good yet, but they are better at the end of the game. How can you be good at the end of the game but so bad early in the game?
Paul Maurice: So, we're lousy at faceoffs, but we tend to be less lousy at the end of the game, why is that? That's the answer to your question. For me it's always been about focus. The very best man in that category, and I'm going to put Roddie Brind'Amour up there, won off sheer focus and will, but he also started at a higher level. We will get better as we go, and we've been better the last 4 or 5 games. What I'm excited about is they're learning now. By the end of the game, I've watched them take 15, 16, 17 faceoffs and they've learned something, and now they can make an adjustment. Ronnie Francis' point is you have to learn how to make adjustments in the faceoff circle, and you can get beat clean for the first 3 or 4 in the game. But now you know what the other player's move is, what's the adjustment that you're going to make? For a lot of them, faceoffs have never been a focus, they've never had to make adjustments, or coming in they've just been better than everybody else. Jeff Skinner was an excellent faceoff man in juniors but it's going to take him a while. Ruutu's cheating now, he's a big, strong guy so one of the things he's doing is dropping his head and shoulders closer in. First, you have to recognize how important it is, second you have to study and make adjustments.
* * *
Audience: Why not Patrick Dwyer in the shootout?
Paul Maurice: You were at practice today, weren't you? We have the percentages for anyone who has ever taken a shootout in the NHL, and how successful they are. The cutoff on a normal shootout is 33%, that's the normal "penalty shot" going into the shootout. The shooters in the shootout are generally higher. Jussi Jokinen was running about 50% for awhile. So we have the numbers for home and away, against the goaltender we're playing against. There are factors that change that, so we take our best. You put the best in the second spot, so Juice goes second, so he can see the goaltender make a play once but there are times when if you put him third you'd never get to him, like what happened in Pittsburgh.
I'm getting to Patrick Dwyer, and I'm being honest, this is a really big year for him, and he's doing very well, but there are about 5 or 6 other guys whose percentages are way ahead of him. The reason I asked if you saw practice is that we worked on the shootout after practice, so we had 20 guys go. They scored four goals, two were on defense and he was one of the forwards who scored.
There are times over the course of the season where your hot guy doesn't want to go. He just doesn't have it that night, And then some nights you're willing to take a flier on some guy, especially if you're on a roll as a team and feeling good, and one guy who normally doesn't get a chance gets his chance. If he scores, that's great, but if he doesn't, they take the weight on. If you miss, you feel it, especially if you cost your team the point. There are confidence issues that go with it as well.
Tripp Tracy: Game 2 in Helsinki you made the decision to go with a guy that had no numbers. Skinner went first and he won you the game. Tell us how that came to fruition.
Paul Maurice: We wanted to work hard in training camp, but we also wanted to have fun, so we started building shootouts into the end of practice. The guys are trying moves that they would never try in a game. But he was trying moves that were working, and he was scoring some great goals. I would have never put him in that situation if at any point in that four-week buildup he had given me a reason not to, because he just goes out and plays, and he's happy, and he has confidence, not arrogance. If I had any insecurity in him, or any fear, that if I put this kid out and he doesn't score and I'm going to lose him for three weeks because he feels he let the team down, and now has too much pressure, I wouldn't. He was on the ice, and something happened to the clock, so he's out there just kind of spinning waiting for the clock, and that's when I realized I just sent an 18-year-old kid out to take the first shootout of the season. Guess I kind of threw this right on his shoulders. He's a special player
* * *
Audience: We obviously all saw the call get blown the other night, after it's all over do you get an explanation?
Paul Maurice: I wanted an explanation on that one, because I knew I was going to have to explain it to my boss. Sometimes you're barking back and forth and players are getting their two cents in, and you're not 100% sure. I knew as soon as he put the headset on that there was something wrong, because it's not reviewable. So for me, when the whistle blows, and he's shaking his head no goal, it's dead, there's no interpretation after that. Somewhere between there and the linesman coming over and saying that the puck went into the net. The explanation to me was that all they asked was did the puck cross the line, which we all saw. My concern was that it was pretty clear that he had blown the whistle before that happened, and somewhere in that Bermuda triangle between the bench and the net and the penalty box, the stories kind of changed a little. And when it came back, I don't know what happened. I know that it was the wrong call, and I'm not sure the referree was 100% at fault. And that's all I will say.
Tripp Tracy: I know I lost a little of my emotional serenity in the booth. How did you reset in order to be able to come back and score what we may look back on as a benchmark goal from Staal to Jokinen?
Paul Maurice: Usually when those things go against you they go bad. We got burned on the line change, it was an illegal substitution, and the call on Jokinen was a bad call, and then that happened, and you get the feeling they're out to get us and it's just not going to happen. But it's about the youth on the bench, and they don't sag. We had the one night here that got away from us, but for the most part, they don't sag, they start barking, and they move on: "Come on, let's go, we're fine." I think there's some carryover. That Jokinen goal in New Jersey we're still getting miles from it. There are still enough guys that remember. "Just stay and play as long as you can, because Juice may get open."
* * *
Audience: How about commenting on the power play?
Paul Maurice: To really appreciate the power play, you need to come down to the bench, because every once in a while we tell them to shoot the puck. I will tell you that to fully appreciate it, it is a completely different world when you see it at ice level. When you're standing on blades at that blue line, you're not nearly as open as it looks from up there. I like our power play over the last two weeks, with the exception of the last game. I think we ran close to the best break out in the league, it's Ronnie Francis' breakout and it's been ripped off, about 6 months ago everyone started to use it. I like that we have a foundation set that allows us to grow and get better. From a technical point of view, you're really trying to open up a shooting lane, you either work the puck low or you work the puck high, and we're starting to get that going. You saw a good example in the Nashville game, the move to the umbrella, with the guy in the middle and the guy up top, and the shots they'll give you sometimes is an umbrella shot from the sides or the middle, and anything down low goes to the net. One of the things that I think has happened on the power play in the last two weeks is that Skinner's gotten on the half wall, and he works the half wall better than anyone else we have. Different from Jussi Jokinen, and maybe better in some ways.
* * *
Tripp Tracy: To wrap things up tonight, what do we need to do to be successful against Washington on Wednesday and give everyone a happy Thanksgiving with two points?
Paul Maurice: We need to marry the Nashville mindset with some of the confidence from the Ottawa game, and that's where we need to get to. When you don't have the puck, we have to be a grinding team and hunt it like a dog, and when you get the puck, you need to have the confidence to let it happen, not to be tight or worried about mistakes, you're not going to be benched for it, let the offensive part of the game flow within the structure of what we're trying to do. When you don't have it, hunt it.