KEEP MAURICE ALL SEASON AND THEN ASSESS THE SITUATION
Last night's game against Tampa Bay reinforced in my mind the wisdom of giving Maurice the entire season to make his case for being retained as head coach. The 2011-2012 Hurricanes have the ability to play against the NHL's best teams by playing as a unified team on all four lines. I am not suggesting that Maurice has shown himself to be an elite coach by past history. He has, however, shown he is far from being the NHL's worst coach. He is a coach who is most comfortable having his team play solid, but not especially breath-taking hockey. For example, if one took the tapes of the Tampa Bay games to look for fancier plays, I think Tampa Bay would have plenty of plays that showed high levels of skill; but they also did not result in scores.
LaRose's first goal was fantastic and timely. It came from winning a positioning battle in front of the net and tapping the puck into the back of the net. It was a superb play; but didn't require him to weave through traffic, stop on a dime, and make a highlight reel move. Simple is good for the Hurricanes. Skinner is the exception in that he makes impossible plays look almost routine. Both his goals were highlight reel plays, I thought.
At this stage of the season, Maurice gets credit in my mind for having the team defense having all the players on the same page. Credit goes to Dave Lewis and Glen Wesley as well, I think. The Gleason/Allen pairing has been excellent. McBain/Pitkanen has been another fine pairing. I am not enthralled with Kaberle but Harrison is having another career year. I have to believe the Hurricanes will look to transition away from Kaberle if they can find a trade partner. Kaberle has not been disastrous, but I'd put him as the least effective defenseman at the moment.
The forwards are playing much better defense as a group. They have increased their aggressiveness and physicality over last season. They are also doing a good job filling lanes on the back check. Last night, the Hurricanes forwards had their forecheck going despite the fact Tampa Bay is a very difficult team to forecheck.
Ponikarovsky/Sutter/Dwyer are playing quite well together. Ponikarovsky could as easily have seven or eight goals if he hadn't hit posts. Sutter continues to be a quietly spectacular two-way defenseman; and is becoming a threat to score on breakaways at any time.
Skinner/Jokinen/Ruutu have been the Hurricanes best line since being formed last season. Skinner has done his best work at even strength on that line. It is mysterious to me why that line was not kept intact. Now with Jokinen being hurt, I hope either Dalpe or Boychuk or Stewart will be given chances to play in the top six.
Boychuk/Brent/Stewart have been doing a great job, albeit for small minutes per game at even strength. Brent has been excellent on the penalty kill. Boychuk is much improved defensively this season over last season. Perhaps the new defensive scheme suits him better; but what I notice about Boychuk is that he is getting to pucks and has more core strength this season. I still believe he is a top six forward. Dalpe, too, played solidly before being hurt.
Tlusty/Staal/LaRose had a great game last night. Staal is still struggling to be an offensive force on the ice. Tlusty, however, has shown he can play as a hybrid power forward. He is healthy this season and is emphasizing the physical side of his game. If he can add some more goals as a sniper, and he does have the skill set to do so, he can be a force on any line. LaRose had his best game in a long time last night. Staal was not particularly noticeable last night.
The power play for the Hurricanes continues to be a weak spot. In my view, Maurice and his coaching staff are not exceptional at teaching the power play. The disjoint power play has haunted the Hurricanes since the days of Laviolette. Certainly, personnel plays a significant role; but given the fact it has existed under Laviolette and then continues to be a problem under Maurice, I put a large share of responsibility on coaching. When I watch other teams on the power play, they appear much more organized and certain. Many other teams, including Tampa Bay and Philadelphia, have the ability to move the puck via fast, crisp passes. They also have the ability to find the soft spots on the ice without losing structure. It is true they take more chances than the Hurricanes, but they are much more organized while being creative.
I continue to think that Maurice would be well-served to take better advantage of his young players like Dalpe, Boychuk, and Bowman. He has said before that he does not look at particular shifts for a young player, but instead looks to see if the young player looks like he belongs in the NHL. I happen to prefer the approach Tampa Bay and Boucher take with their young players like Connolly; but it is a coach's prerogative whether to throw a highly skilled player immediately into positions of responsibility or whether to groom them on the fourth line until it is painfully obvious the player needs to be moved up. It's frustrating to me to watch the fourth line get minimal minutes when I think there are players ready to have significant positive impacts on the games. Still, until I coach my first NHL game, I will readily acknowledge Maurice has over 1,000 NHL games as head coach as his frame of reference.
The Hurricanes are a young team. They came within a single game last year of making the playoffs. They have a new defensive system. They had a very difficult October and survived. My hope is that the Hurricanes will make the playoffs. I think they are a #7 to #10 team, or yet again a bubble team. My belief is that the team has sufficient talent to make the playoffs, although it could well come down to the last week of the season. If the Hurricanes make the playoffs, then by all means Maurice deserves to remain as head coach. If the Hurricanes fall short, in my view it's time for a coaching change. Giving Maurice the full season to prove himself is fair to him and is fair to the team.