Let's give credit where credit is due: when GM Jim Rutherford decided to bring back Paul Maurice, he knew that polishing off a beat-up souvenir from the Hurricanes' mantle would not be a fan-friendly move.
Like I wrote the day after Maurice was brought in to replace Peter Laviolette, it was a no-lose situation for Rutherford as far as team management was considered. He had a familiar face whose transition would be as seamless as possible, plus he brought him in on a balance-of-the-season contract that would allow both parties to walk away if the move backfired.
The bigger issue was the perception of the situation. Many fans saw this as Rutherford taking the easy way out and, for the umpteenth time, revisiting a past employee that left to a chorus of boos (see David Tanabe or Josef Vasicek, to name a couple).
Of course, there has been some success bringing an old face back to Raleigh. Ryan Bayda's return to Carolina has been fruitful. Matt Cullen, while not the player he was during the Stanley Cup run, is a fan favorite and capable of being the best player on the ice on any given night. Anton Babchuk's return from Russia has been a case study in how to forgive and forget.
Add Maurice to that list.
There's no denying that Maurice has abandoned Laviolette's high-flying style, instead installing more of a defense-first approach. It does incorporate more forward creativity and defensive involvement than the previous Maurice era. But the effort to limit opposing chances, specifically the odd-man rushes that had become prevalent this season under Laviolette, are easily noticeable — and also not as exciting as Laviolette's back-and-forth pace. But fans — along with players and general managers — notice one thing above all else: wins.
And Maurice is winning.
Since taking over, Coach Mo has led the Canes to wins in nine of 16 games and managed points in all but four. The 21 points over that stretch work out to 107.63 points over the course of an 82-game season. Under Maurice, the team has allowed one more goal than they've scored (44 against, 43 for), but Carolina is plus-two on the scoreboard since Cam Ward came back from injury 12 games ago (32 for, 30 against). While it's only a slight improvement, it could be the difference between going to the playoffs and staying home.
For the season, Carolina is still among the worst in goal differential among teams currently holding a playoff spot at minus-eight (110 for vs. 118 against). No other team in the top eight of the Eastern Conference has given up more goals than they've scored, and only Phoenix, at minus-16, is in the red with the Hurricanes among those in the playoffs if the season ended today (the Coyotes currently hold the Western Conference's final postseason slot).
But under Maurice, the numbers have leveled off.
There has also been better special teams play, a key in this era.
The Hurricanes have averaged exactly one power play goal per game under Maurice and new PP architect Ron Francis through 16 games, eclipsing the 15 extra-man markers the team had under Laviolette in the first 25 games of the season. Carolina has scored with the man advantage in four straight, and also in nine of the past 11. In contrast, Laviolette's final game behind the bench Nov. 30 marked the sixth straight game the Canes hadn't scored on the power play — in 25 opportunities.
The team has also drastically cut down on its penalty minutes (which were already low compared to the rest of the league). The Canes haven't had double-digit penalty minutes in nine games (they now average a league-low 10.1 PIMs per game, 30 seconds less than No. 2 Detroit's 10.6), and while they've allowed 13 power-play goals under Maurice, only two have been scored in the past five games.
Maurice has also leaned on Ward, and the heavy workload has benefitted the young goalie — and the team — so far. He's unbeaten in four straight, not allowing more than two goals in any of those games, and is 8-2-1 under Maurice.
Establishing and running with a No. 1 goalie is something Maurice has done throughout his coaching career. The Hurricanes brought in Arturs Irbe for the 1998-99 season, and Maurice played him an average of 71 games the next three seasons, including 77 in 2000-01. Irbe played 51 more the next year, splitting the net with current Canes goalie coach Tom Barrasso. In Toronto, Maurice used Andrew Raycroft 72 times in 2006-07 (not that he had much of a choice) and Vesa Toskala in 66 games last season. Ward played in 69 games last year, and with 29 appearances at the halfway point — with several games lost to injury — he would need to start literally every night to have a chance to match or exceed his total from 2007-08. But with the way Ward is playing behind the rebuilt scheme, it would be surprising if he didn't reach at least 60.
And that brings us back to team defense. Ward has benefited from the aforementioned defensive changes, but the Hurricanes have also scored at about the same pace they have for the entire season. Yes, the team is totally healthy for the first time in a long time, but Maurice also showed he could utilize four AHL defensemen in one night and still compete. The games have been closer on a night-to-night basis, but more often than not Carolina is coming out on top. And that's a credit to Maurice.
Everyone — the players, management, fans and media — have again become believers of this franchise. I don't think anyone's quite ready to give Maurice a multi-year extension and anoint him the long-term solution behind the RBC Center home bench. But I don't hear any "Mo Must Go" chants either.
And that's a credit to Rutherford.