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Paul Maurice, Panthers head coach and hockey lifer, seeks first Stanley Cup: ‘I need to win one’

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Paul Maurice has been around the NHL for a very long time, which would make it seem like he’s older than his 57 years.

The Florida Panthers head coach has been behind NHL benches for so long his first coaching job in the league was with the Hartford Whalers in 1995 when he was 28 years old.

Maurice stayed with the franchise during their move to Carolina, not getting much playoff experience as the team was bounced in the First Round or missed out entirely over his first six seasons in charge. They made the Stanley Cup Final in 2002, but lost to a Detroit Red Wings team full of future Hall of Famers.

Playoff success would elude Maurice as he moved on to the Toronto Maple Leafs for two seasons and then back to Carolina for another four years. After a year in Russia and the KHL, he took on the Winnipeg Jets’ job and turned the franchise around. But after four consecutive playoff appearances, he stepped down on Dec. 17, 2021, citing a need for the dressing room to have a new voice and that he gave the franchise all he could.

Maurice was only 54 when he left the Jets, but he was a very experienced 54-year-old. Despite that, he was ready for that to be the end of his coaching career if that’s how life played out.

The break from hockey wasn’t very long, however. After a few “phenomenal days of fishing” that summer, Maurice changed his mind after receiving a call from Panthers general manager Bill Zito.

Zito only reason for calling was to gauge Maurice’s interest in returning behind an NHL bench, not looking to outright offer him the job during their first conversation. “And then we start talking hockey, and that was it,” Maurice said during Friday’s Stanley Cup Final Media Day.

Not long later, Maurice was hired. At the time, the Panthers had only one playoff series win since they reached the 1996 Stanley Cup Final.

It wasn’t a great first regular season under Maurice. The Panthers earned 30 fewer points and 16 fewer wins than their 2021-22 Presidents’ Trophy winning season. “I managed to get them down to 92 in one year,” Maurice joked. “Brilliant.”

But after a down regular season, the Panthers got hot at the right time and made a run to the Stanley Cup Final before falling to the Vegas Golden Knights in five games.

A very young Paul Maurice behind the bench of the Hartford Whalers. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)A very young Paul Maurice behind the bench of the Hartford Whalers. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)

A very young Paul Maurice behind the bench of the Hartford Whalers. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images)

Some teams experience a hangover after a long run to the Cup Final in the previous season. A 5-4-1 start was quickly flipped and the Panthers went on to win the Atlantic Division and shut down opposing stars over the first three rounds of the playoffs to get to within four wins of a championship — this time with the Edmonton Oilers serving as opponents.

Maurice’s message, like it had in his previous stops, got through to his players. They’ve approached this season more mature and disciplined on the ice. They still bring plenty of physicality to games, but in a much smart way.

It’s the Paul Maurice effect, and his players are aware and thankful for what he’s brought to the team.

“He’s such an amazing coach. He’s the best one I’ve had,” said forward Matthew Tkachuk. “He’s gotten me to become a better player than when I first started here. I’ve got nothing but good things to say about him.

“I’ve got a ton of respect for him, and I think all the players, first and foremost, you really want to win it for yourself and your teammate next to you. But I think a guy like Paul, it means a lot to him, from all of us, seeing what he’s done for us the past two years. We definitely want to get it for him.”

Humor is a tool Maurice uses in all situations — with the media and his players. He’s quick with a joke or a self-deprecating comment to alleviate tension. He can be fiery when necessary, but that balance has played with his players, and the long-term effect has been a positive one.

“[He’s] really good at reading the room, really good at knowing what we need, when we need it. I think that’s the biggest quality I can take away,” said forward Evan Rodrigues. “He knows when a team needs a joke, and he knows when a team needs a kick in the back end. He’s been incredible for us all year and yeah, really enjoy playing for him.”

What Maurice brings in experience to the table is a resume of 869 regular-season wins, which is fourth all-time among coaches. Only Scotty Bowman, Joel Quenneville and Barry Trotz have won more.

What Bowman, Quenneville and Trotz have that Maurice is missing is a Stanley Cup ring. Multiples in the cases of Bowman and Quenneville.

This is Maurice’s third appearance in a Cup Final. He’s put in the time, come close twice and now really wants to be the coach celebrating his team’s 16th playoff victory.

“As you age, you get a different perspective on life and what’s important and valuable,” Maurice said. “I need to win one. No, it’s not going to change the section of my life that’s not related to hockey at all. But that’s the truth. That’s how I feel. I’m 30 years into this thing. Wouldn’t mind winning one.”

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