Is firing Maurice really necessary?

The “Mo Must Go” campaign seems to have hit a new high this season with the way the Hurricanes have been playing for the past month or so. I’ve heard every cliche and narrative tossed around during this time.

“Maurice has lost the team.”
“The players aren’t buying into his philosophy.”
“The players have given up on him.”
“It’s time for a change.”

While I haven’t agreed with some of Maurice’s decisions, I don’t see what firing him at this point will accomplish. There are situations where I think a coaching change should be in order the usual case is when you have a very talented team that’s underperforming. Carolina has plenty of talent but the only top-end players are Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner and maybe Joni Pitkanen. This team didn’t exactly have great underlying numbers last year and most of their success was due to Cam Ward’s great play. To make things worse, the team got a little weaker up front by subtracting Erik Cole so Ward’s play was going to play a big factor into how the team would perform this year. Carolina is still struggling to score and prevent shots at even strength and Ward’s save percentage is barely above .900 so that should tell you how things are going.

Is it Maurice’s fault that Ward’s play has regressed this year? No, but this doesn’t mean that Ward is the reason the Canes are where they are in the standings. In a perfect world, the Canes wouldn’t have to rely on Ward to steal so many games but they don’t appear to have the horses up front to do that. The team’s best scoring line consists of three natural centers and the only depth that was added at the wings over the off-season was Anthony Stewart and Alexei Ponikarovsky. I said that Poni could be a reasonable replacement for Cole but that obviously has not been the case at all. The defense corps has not changed that much either aside from the addition of Tomas Kaberle, who isn’t going to help you much with shot suppression, and the emergence of Tim Gleason/Bryan Allen as a decent shutdown pair but the fact remains that this team still gives up a ton of shots nightly. Maurice doesn’t control the make-up of this team but it is up to him to make the most out of it. I believe he and Dave Lewis have done that with the defense but the forwards are a work in progress. In fact, I would say that the Canes team as a whole are a work in progress and they aren’t underachieving because of bad coaching. Their struggles are due to a lack of talent up front.

One other argument I’ve heard for Maurice’s dismissal is that he isn’t he right coach for this team. The Canes are rebuilding in a sense and have some organizational depth, but Maurice has barely been playing them at all. Maurice typically only rolls three lines with the fourth line getting less than 10 minutes per game and it’s led some people to believe that Maurice can’t work with younger players and the team would be betters suited with a coach like Jeff Daniels from Charlotte. I like to call this the “Andy Murray argument.” This would be true except for one detail. Jeff Skinner was given top six minutes right off the bat in Carolina and it hasn’t changed one bit. The same goes for Justin Faulk playing top-four minutes in nearly every game he’s played for the Hurricanes this year. Granted, Skinner and Faulk have higher ceilings and have proven more in the NHL than Boychuk and Dalpe but you could argue that neither of those two have been given much of a chance here. That said, this isn’t something that Maurice should be fired over. The team is rebuilding but it’s not a full-out youth movement like in Edmonton and Ottawa, so I don’t think that Maurice needs to be fired mid-season over not giving some younger players enough ice-time. 

Then there’s the whole “the coach has lost the locker room” narrative which I will continue to believe is a fallacy and a lazy way of explaining how team isn’t that good or they are just unlucky. It’s mostly the former in Carolina’s case, but they’ve seen some variable stats not swing their way this season. There’s a lot of times where you’ll have a team that is playing really well but the team doesn’t win games because of poor goaltending or having their best goal-scorers go through incredible bouts of back luck. It’s happened with an assistant coach in Montreal this year and it nearly cost Bruce Boudreau his job in Washington last season, but their GM kept a cooler head.

When Peter Laviolette was fired in 2008, the Canes were actually playing well territorially but sitting with a record that was near .500 because of some bad goaltending (.895 save %) among other things. Laviolette was then fired and Paul Maurice takes over where he only goes 12-10-3 for the next 25 games. The Canes were playing at about the same level during that time and were getting better goaltending. A lot of the wings came during the Canes second half surge where they won nine games in a row towards the end of March which was enough for them to solidify a playoff spot and you know how the rest of the story goes from there. What’s interesting is that Carolina’s territorial play didn’t improve that much under Maurice for the rest of the 08-09 season but their save percentage improved to .928 which obviously had a big factor in the Canes winning more games in the second half. They were outshooting opponents more regularly that year and the wins starting to come once their goaltending turned around. I know some players had issues with Lavi, but it is pretty fascinating when you look at it this way.

Gabe from Arctic Ice Hockey recently did a study to see how much firing a coach impacts the team’s Fenwick percentage and it showed that the improvement was very minimal (worth about half a win) so if a team was playing bad and fired their coach, not much would come of it. That’s sort of the boat Carolina is in right now. They have one of the worst possession rates in the Eastern Conference and it’s mostly due to a lack of talent. If Maurice were to be axed, it wouldn’t change much. I would rather wait out the season to make a decision on the coaching position because we’ll have a better idea of what the team wants to do then and there will be more names available.