FIXING THE FAIL; WHAT A FOOL BELIEVES HE SEES -- MICHAEL MCDONALD (with some unpopular suggestions)
I was asked on Twitter why Maurice cannot see what seems obvious in that he needs to play Boychuk/Staal/Stewart as the first line. It's a complicated answer and much too long for Twitter. Here goes.
The reasons for Maurice's inability to see the obvious are complicated and complex. Let's begin with his persona. Maurice has the appearance of a self-confident, even head-strong, person; but the deeper reality is that he is risk adverse and is very insecure. It's understandable. His playing career ended due to injury while he was in the OHL. He never experienced what the players he is trying to coach experience every day. He has never looked up in any NHL rink from on the ice, dressed out, sweating, fatigued in the heat of combat to see the crowd, either cheering or disgruntled. He has not done so from an AHL rink.
The players know that, Jim Rutherford knows that, and Maurice knows that. It's almost an impossible situation for any coach. It is made worse, not better, by the fact that Maurice is so close to Jim Rutherford and Peter Karmanos, Jr. Maurice is there as head coach with a GM and owner who adore him, admire him, and support him. It's a privilege few NHL coaches ever experience. It's also a hindrance to establishing a connection with his team because he does not inherently carry the gravitas most NHL coaches possess. In short, the elephant in the room is that Maurice is there as coach as much due to his relationships as due to strict merit.
Maurice is very much risk adverse. His decisions reflect a person who will chose time after time the safe course even when that course is less likely to succeed than a more creative path. This desire for safe choices is virtually a guarantee for mediocrity. Whereas Boucher's motto is "Safe is death," Maurice's motto is "Safe is Safe." Accordingly, it is no surprise Maurice is a .500 coach in his career. He coaches to the mean. He chooses the statistically safe approach.
Here are some examples. The safe approach is put LaRose is in the top six. LaRose is beloved by the team, the organization, and the fans. He hustles every shift. He is a great leader on and off the ice. LaRose has all the intangibles anybody would want. He is also an anchor in the top six. He lacks the over all sense of the game, the hands, the shot, to play on a scoring line. He can't process all the information and make the reads to stay in position while still playing the hustling game that is his trademark. So while LaRose is a safe choice with Staal, it makes it much harder for Staal to be good.
Kaberle is another example. Kaberle is a former NHL All-star. He has the ability to make great passes on the power play. He should be able to make great break out passes. He is a big framed man. In short, he is a safe choice. The reality is that Kaberle is done. He is as physical as Patrick O'Sullivan, meaning he is the opposite of physical. He is riding out the contract and going through the motions the way Samsonov did. At some point in their careers, some NHL veterans lose the fire in the belly. Rather than challenging pucks in the corners, they let up. Their will to win morphs into a will to stay healthy. It's as if their subconscious is saying "it's not worth it to get hurt for that puck." Accordingly, while Kaberle is a safe choice, he is terrible under Lewis' system. The treatment of Boychuk, Dalpe, and Stewart all fit this category. The Hurricanes are struggling to replace Cole and to put together a scoring first line. Dalpe, Boychuk, and Stewart, all in different ways, are scorers. It, however, is not guaranteed safe to play them on the first line. As a result, they have been under-utilized this entire season to date.
The mismatch between the kind of athlete needed to run Dave Lewis' defense and the athletes the Hurricanes have on the roster is another issue. It's all about speed, foot quickness, and agility. Kaberle and Harrison are not fast enough, explosive enough, or agile enough to work well with Dave Lewis's approach. Harrison to be fair is the most improved defenseman I've seen at his age for the past two seasons. He's fine. He's improving. He's going to really have to battle to fit within the keep your lanes positioning under Dave Lewis. He's such a great guy I hope it works out for him with the Hurricanes. On the other hand, the Hurricanes have Gleason, Pitkanen, Allen, McBain, Murphy, Faulk, Dumoulin, Joslin, and Sanguinetti. Kaberle is still here. Biega, Alt, Levi, and Lowe will also be knocking at the door.
Another question is can somebody save Maurice from Maurice? It's always possible; but it's unlikely. Staal could potentially hit his stride. Rutherford might step in and have his "we're going to blow up this team if you don't start playing" speech. Faulk and McBain might step it up. Boychuk might finally put together some goal scoring tears that make is impossible to move him out of the top six. Stewart might show that spark that I've seen when he was in Atlanta and even Florida where he takes over games. Skinner may well take matters into his own hands and by the force of his will alone bring the team out of the skids. Mathematically and with probabilities, the chances are not high of all those things occurring; but that's why they go out and play games rather than running computer simulations.
So here the Hurricanes are with an insecure coach, with a young team lacking an elite, NHL all-star wing to go with Staal, and lacking one more elite shutdown defenseman; and with a budget that can fairly be called barely subsistence. It's a near starvation diet as far as salary budget goes. What can be done is to bite the bullet and keep moving forward. Keep Maurice for good or for bad until the season ends. Look for the opportunity to trade Kaberle, LaRose, Harrison, and Ponikarovsky to make room for speedier, more physically talented players. Look to change the dynamic in the room and give space for the younger players to emerge as leaders. It's tough love for the team as a whole.
Here are the lines that would save Maurice for another year:
Ponikarovsky/Brent/LaRose or Dwyer
McBain/Joslin and Harrison (splitting time)
Here's Maurice's basic message to the media, the fans, and the team to save his job another year:
"We started slow. We hate this start. We are going younger, bigger, meaner, more committed. We will overcome the mistakes of youth with the sheer talent and commitment. Every shift will be a war. Every puck in the corner will be combat. We'll be unpredictable, but we will be fun to watch. We are going to roll four lines and all four can score. Watch us run and watch us fight. We will be a good team; and soon we will be a great team."
Will it happen? Probably not. It's asking Maurice to find another way, a risky way. It is not his nature.