Paul Maurice Hired as Florida Panthers Head Coach

The Florida Panthers hired Paul Maurice as their head coach. Here is what he brings to the team.

Winnipeg Jets' head coach Paul Maurice discusses Patrik Laine's concussion during a short press conference after the pre-game skate.
Photo Credit: MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

After weeks of searching, the Florida Panthers have landed on a coaching decision. In a somewhat surprising move, the team chose Paul Maurice to be the Florida Panthers head coach. Maurice replaces interim coach Andrew Brunette, who lead the team to a 51-18-6 record since taking over last season.

This move comes as quite a shock to the Panthers faithful, as Maurice was not a name floated around during the hiring process. Still, the organization views Maurice as someone who can take the team forward. Here is what he brings to the organization.

Paul Maurice’s coaching history

Paul Maurice has been a head coach in the NHL for 24 years. His most successful season came in 2002 where he took the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup Final. Most recently, Maurice spent the past nine seasons as the head coach of the Winnipeg Jets. In those nine seasons, Maurice made the playoffs five times. His most successful season with the Jets came in 2018, where he made the conference finals.

Since the NHL has changed drastically in the last five years, it really only makes sense to analyze his last stint in Winnipeg to see what he will offer as the Florida Panthers head coach.

Since the 2017-18 season, the Jets averaged 3.18 goals per game. That places them eighth in the league over that stretch. The team also gave up 2.79 goals per game under Maurice, a figure that places them 10th.

In that same time frame, the power play hovered around 23%, which places them fourth league wide. The Penalty kill had a success rate of around 80%, which is below league average.

The Macro numbers suggest a consistently good offensive team with defensive questions. This is exactly what those Jets teams were. Maurice does deserve credit for implementing a system which allowed his offensive talent to thrive. However, the same defensive lapses plagued his teams year after year with little adjustments from him. The Jets became predictable and it ultimately led to his ousting there.

Maurice’s fit with the Panthers

The Panthers wanted experience with their new coaching hire, and Maurice has plenty of experience. This Panthers team can also be thought of as an upgraded version of Maurice’s Jets. Both are gifted offensively and lack the lockdown defensive ability of many of the perennial cup contenders. In this sense, the learning curve shouldn’t be too steep for Maurice as he adjusts to his personnel.

Still, Maurice will need to change some things if he wants to be successful as the Florida Panthers head coach. For instance, the Penalty kill needs to be sharper. Too often in Winnipeg were the Jets caught flat footed leading to good scoring chances for their opponents.

The Panthers had similar problems last year. The virtue of a veteran coach is the ability to make adjustments quickly and seamlessly. Hopefully Maurice can provide this, but it was not apparent through many of his seasons with the Jets.

Another, and perhaps larger, problem is his handling of personnel. Specifically, his reputation as an authoritarian. Players such as Patrik Laine have been at odds with Maurice in the past, and it led to Laine demanding a trade. Much like former panther coach Gerard Gallant, Maurice tends to favor grizzled veterans over promising youngsters, which stunted the growth of many players in Winnipeg. Could the same happen to players like Anton Lundell and Spencer Knight in Florida? Only time will tell, but that could be disastrous for the franchise.

My Take

Ultimately, I do not think this was the right hire for the Panthers. Part of what made the team special last year was how much the players loved playing for Andrew Brunette. Every single one raved after the season about how much they loved him as a coach and how much they wanted him back behind the bench.

Of course, the flameout in the playoffs left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. It certainly led to management’s decision to change coaches. Still, to abandon what the team had been building together after just one playoff failure is not the mark of a good organization.

Think about the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2019. After a 62 win regular season, they suffered an embarrassing first round sweep to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Despite this, the team made no drastic moves in the offseason. Jon Cooper returned as the coach and the core remained the same. They grew together and won the next two Stanley Cups.

Why the Panthers did not try to emulate the Lightning in this sense is beyond me. Great teams become great through continuity. Coaches, like players, are capable of growth. Bruno looked outmatched in these playoffs, no doubt, but not having the patience to stick with him and let him make mistakes portrays a palpable lack of trust that the players are certainly affected by.

Keep in mind this is not an indictment of Paul Maurice as a coach. He has a proven track record of success in numerous circumstances and his experience has value. But the damage done by uprooting the leader of this team outweighs the potential schematic improvement that Maurice can provide.

Andrew Brunette should have been the coach again. The team was absolutely dominant during the regular season due in large part to the work of Brunette. The Panthers did not need a change of direction, they just needed more time to learn. I do hope I am wrong, but I think this was the wrong decision.

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Florida Panthers Defense showing signs of improvement

Florida Panthers celebrate after a win over the Anaheim Ducks, thanks to the defense
Photo Credit: FloridaPanthersPR

Following Florida’s 7-6 comeback win over Toronto on April 5, most fans felt nothing but elation. For the Panthers themselves, that game marked a need for change. The Florida Panthers defense had been struggling mightily in the first eight games Aaron Ekblad missed due to injury, and that game marked the tipping point for the team’s coaching staff.

After the game against Toronto, head coach Andrew Brunette mentioned the need for stronger defensive showings. He knows the importance of a formidable defense in the playoffs. With the regular season winding down, the team needed to begin to shut down their opponents. Even with Ekblad presumably returning for the playoffs, the team needed defensive answers with the current group.

In the four games since that shift, the team has allowed only seven goals. Excluding the first period against Buffalo, the team surrendered only four goals in the past 11 periods of hockey. That impressive turnaround can be attributed to several factors which have re-energized the Florida Panthers defense.

New Florida Panthers Defensive Pairings

One change Bruno implemented with the Florida Panthers defense was to change up the pairings. For these combinations, Bruno decided to pair strength with strength. He paired offensive defensemen Gustav Forsling and Brandon Montour together, as well as physical defensemen Robert Hagg and Radko Gudas.

These changes create some interesting wrinkles for opponents. The high-powered offensive duo have used their collective speed to grab the puck and push it out of their own zone. In the past four games the pair each have four points (Forsling 3g 1a, Montour 0g 4a.)

Conversely, Hagg and Gudas use their physical nature to shut down opposing chances. Because neither are offensively gifted, the team opts for a separation of responsibilities when they come on the ice. Indeed, the duo disrupts all opposing chances and the forwards do the heavy lifting on offense. So far, it has worked to perfection. In the 27 minutes of the Hagg-Gudas pairing thus far, the tandem boasts a remarkable 72.4 expected goals percentage.

Improved Goalie Play

Of course, none of this would be possible without the goalies. Both Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight have given amazing performances this past week. Bob was 3-0-0 with a 0.931 save percentage while Knight stopped 24 of 25 shots and won his lone appearance.

Specifically, this last start for Bobrovsky stands out. Against Winnipeg, Bobrovsky stopped 30 of 31 shots. He finished with a goals saved above expected of 1.43. After a horrible couple of starts against New Jersey and Toronto, these games have meaning. They help build confidence and rhythm going into the playoffs. Bobrovsky will likely be the team’s starting goalie come playoffs, and his play can make or break the cup run.

However, if Bobrovsky’s inconsistency proves to be Florida’s weakness in the playoffs, the team should feel encouraged about Spencer Knight’s progress. Knight played one of the best games in his career against Nashville last week. He finished with 1.45 goals saved above expected, which brought his total number for the year into the positive.

After a terrible start to the year, Knight has given the team very consistent play in net. While he likely won’t be the starter, he will end up in net at some point come the playoffs.

New Additions Getting Comfortable

When looking back at the terrible two-week defensive stretch, it is clear that working in some new additions played a part in it. Earlier this year, Sam Reinhart discussed the difficulties of getting acclimated to Florida’s unique system. After 15 games, he became one of the teams best players. His slow start was quickly forgotten by fans and media alike.

The same should have been expected of the deadline acquisitions, namely Ben Chairot and Roberg Hagg. We talked earlier about Hagg finding his fit with Gudas, and the same could be said for Chairot. Now spending his time with Weegar, the two increased their expected goals percentage together from 55% to 62%. Chairot also has two assists over his last four games.

With the chemistry this Florida Panthers defense gained in the past week, the team may have solved its biggest problem. If the team regains its strong defensive play AND adds Aaron Ekblad going into the playoffs, they instantly become the team to beat. Indeed, the ceiling is high, but the team needs to make tweaks in these last few games more than most in their position.

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Aaron Ekblad Injury Leaves a Crater on the Panthers’ Blue Line

Since Aaron Ekblad’s injury, the Panthers have not been as consistent defensively, they will need him to return to be the cup contenders they want to be.

Aaron Ekblad skating off the ice after an injury
Photo Credit: Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ask anyone what this Panthers season has been about, they’ll tell you the offense. And rightfully so. This forward group has put together the greatest offensive season since Mario Lemieux’s Penguins. However, the player who should be considered the MVP of their season is Aaron Ekblad.

While the offense hummed, Ekblad stabilized the back end. He allowed this team to be more than your typical run-and-gun shootout team; he made them dominant. This most recent Aaron Ekblad injury shows his importance to this team, and why he will need to come back if the Panthers want to have any chance at winning the cup.

Defensive numbers faltering

Since the Aaron Ekblad injury against Anaheim on March 18, the Panthers have gone 7-1-0. Certainly not the mark of a team feeling the absence of a star player, but the underlying numbers tell a different story.

Prior to Ekblad’s departure, the Panthers gave up 2.84 goals per game, a top-10 defensive ranking (Vancouver currently ranks 10th in the league with 2.84 GA/GP.) In the eight games he’s missed, the team is giving up 3.75 goals per game. This mark would have them 30th, ahead of only bottom feeders Montreal and Detroit.

They managed to hold their opponent under three goals only once in those eight games, and they have surrendered six twice. These eight games increased their goals against average from 2.84 to 2.94, which ranks 14th.

The Panthers have a historically great offense and, with Ekblad, a strong enough defense to force any opponents to work hard for their goals. That is what makes them special. Without him, games have shown to be more or less a shootout. Sure, the comebacks are fun, but we have to wonder why this team falls behind so frequently. For the Panthers to have success in the playoffs, their defense needs to be formidable. That hinges on an Ekblad return.

Defensive pairs do not work without him

Obviously, losing a Norris Trophy candidate would make any team’s defense worse. However, for the Panthers specifically, there is simply no viable replacement for him. The Panthers were hoping trade deadline acquisition Ben Chairot would be able to eat up much Ekblad’s defensive responsibilities, but he has disappointed thus far.

Of course, it would have been unreasonable to expect for him to duplicate Ekblad’s production, but his lack of a natural fit on the roster raises concerns. Over the eight games Chairot has played, he has been paired with both Mackenzie Weegar and Radko Gudas. When paired with Weegar, the two give up 4.56 goals against per 60 minutes. With Gudas, the pair surrenders a slightly better 3.7 goals against per 60 minutes. Obviously, the small sample size should be noted, but the eye test backs the numbers up.

Unlike the offensive core, the defensive players have not shown the ability to step up when a star goes down. When Barkov missed six weeks, players such as Jonathan Huberdeau, Sam Reinhart, and Anthony Duclair all took advantage of increased opportunities to make sure the offense stayed level.

When Ekblad went out, it has been up to the offense to score even more goals. To be clear, all of Florida’s defensemen have shown to be more than capable in their roles, but not out of them. For them to go back to their roles, Ekblad must return for the playoffs.

Special teams slumping

One underrated loss for the Panthers since the Aaron Ekblad injury has been the loss of their special teams maestro. A fixture on both the power play and the penalty kill, Ekblad’s presence has been missed on both. The penalty kill has stopped 19 of 27 opponent chances over the last eight games, a 70% success rate.

That mark would be last in the league over a full season. This also includes giving up multiple power play goals in three of the eight games. Simply not good enough for a cup contender.

The same is true for the power play unit. Despite its many admirers, the five forward power play the Panthers have been using recently has some inherent weaknesses. Namely, the increased likelihood of surrendering shorthanded goals. Over the past eight games, the Panthers have given up two shorthanded goals at crucial junctures in the game, and should be thankful they have yet to give up more.

The Panthers may still choose to experiment with five forwards on the power play in the playoffs. Their unique collection of talent affords them that opportunity. Still, they miss the option of a reliable two-way defenseman out there as a security blanket.

Aaron Ekblad is one of the best defensemen in the league. Of course, the team needs him for their best shot at a deep playoff run. Over these last few games, it has become increasingly clear what his absence truly means to this team. It takes them from genuine cup contender to another high variance team. The kind of team that flames out in the playoffs. After years of heartache, that is the last thing this franchise needs.

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Comeback Cats: Saturday’s may be team’s most impressive comeback

Gustav Forsling scores the game winning goal for the Panthers, AKA the Comeback Cats
Photo Credit: FlaPanthersPR

The game was all but over, until the Comeback Cats showed up.

Down 6-2 to start the third period in New Jersey, fans of both teams would have told you to put this game on ice. The Panthers have staged several comebacks this season, but this game felt different. Whether it was the 12:30 start or a late night before, the team simply had no juice through the first 40 minutes.

Whatever was wrong, they fixed it during the second intermission.

The Panthers reminded everyone a game is never over against the Comeback Cats, and turned what might have been the worst showing of the season into their greatest resilience story to date. Four goals in the third and the game winner in overtime left the home crowd stunned. For the Cats, it was nothing they didn’t already know they were capable of.

“There was no doubt in the room. We’ve been doing that all year. This was a big win for us” said Brandon Montour, who’s third period goal started the comeback. “The game’s not over until the 60 minutes are done. We believe in each other in that room.”

Admittedly, the team did not earn the “Comeback Cats” moniker for nothing, but this game is likely their most impressive. For 40 minutes, the team earned the 6-2 score they faced. In fact, one could argue that this was one of their worst games of the season. Knowing that another game awaits them tomorrow, most teams would not have even had the energy or ability to make this game competitive.

The Panthers are not most teams, and this year has proven that. They have their eyes set on a much bigger prize than winning their first round series for the first time since 1996 — they want to win it all. They want their names etched on the Stanley Cup for eternity. Games like Saturday’s show they can do just that.

Managing to beat a young and motivated Devils team on their home ice by only showing up for the third period marks a team confident and talented enough to go deep into the playoffs. They’re good and they know it. Head coach Andrew Brunette said after the game, “We’ve shown we’re a gritty team, we have resilience… You felt it on the bench after we made it 6-4 that anything was possible. A proud group of guys that are never out of it.”

If anyone needs more of a reason to believe in this team, just look at Saturday’s game. While the true test for this team lies in the playoffs, they have earned their status as a legitimate cup contender. In a season that has raised the bar for the franchise, the team keeps finding new ways to impress.

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The Claude Giroux Trade and Possible Panthers Forward Combinations

With Claude Giroux acquired by the Florida Panthers, the team has to figure out how best to fit him into the lineup.

Photo Credit: NHLtraderumor.com

Claude Giroux is headed to South Florida. The Florida Panthers acquired the 34 year old centreman from Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for Owen Tippett, a first round pick in 2024, and a third round pick in 2023. Florida also received a 2024 fifth round pick, Connor Bunnaman, and German Rubtsov in the deal.

In 57 games this year, Giroux has tallied 18 goals and 24 assists. The Claude Giroux trade opens up a world of possibilities for the Cats. The versatile forward can slide in almost anywhere in the top 6. Since Sam Reinhart has found a home on that third line, Giroux’s top 6 spot is secure. With that being said, however, head coach Andrew Brunette has options. Here are a few of the line combinations to look out for in the coming weeks.

First Line Right Wing

This choice appears to be the most obvious. Andrew Brunette’s words after Monday’s practice seem to indicate this will be the option he chooses to start with. In this scenario, Giroux replaces Maxim Mamin on the first line, and Carter Verhaeghe moves over to the left wing. This creates a top line of Verhaeghe-Barkov-Giroux while keeping the Huberdeau-Bennett-Duclair line intact.

The benefits to this are obvious. It adds a new dimension to that first line and gives Aleksander Barkov another scoring threat to set up. It also keeps the rest of the forward group together, which has found so much success thus far. It may not cover up many team weaknesses, but it enhances a formula which has worked wonderfully this season. An extremely low risk move.

Second Line Center

One underappreciated benefit of the Claude Giroux trade for the Panthers is the added center depth. Claude Giroux has been an extremely effective two-way center for over a decade in the NHL. This scenario allows the Panthers to use his rare talents to their advantage.

Here, Giroux will take over as the second line center and push Sam Bennett out to the right wing. Anthony Duclair will slide up to the first line, a combination which worked well last season. Thus, the top six will consist of a Verhaeghe-Barkov-Duclair first line and a Huberdeau-Giroux-Bennett second line.

This option may be slightly more risky, but it also potentially solves more problems. Claude Giroux’s responsible defensive game can cover for Sam Bennett’s lapses on that side of the ice. It also keeps Johnathan Huberdeau and Sam Bennett together, as the two have found great chemistry over the past year.

The Verhaeghe-Barkov-Duclair line has proven to be extremely effective in the past, and should have no problem reclaiming that magic. Of course, this option may put too much pressure on Giroux out of the gate, and it is unclear if Bennett will be as effective on the wing, but it may be worth trying if the offense hits a skid.

The Scorched Earth Option

The Panthers have the firepower, and its time to show it.

This season Andrew Brunette has not been afraid to pair Barkov and Huberdeau together on the top line when things go stagnant. This scenario takes that concept to the extreme. Claude Giroux takes the right wing, Barkov takes center, and Huberdeau gets deployed on the left wing. That leaves Verhaeghe-Bennett-Duclair is as the second line here.

That combination creates quite possibly the best line in hockey today. Opposing teams would have nightmares trying to stop that line offensively, or finding a weakness defensively. No team would have any answers — if it works as well as advertised.

Of course, this does not distribute the talent equally throughout the lineup, so I would not expect for it to be the standard line. In certain situations, however, this option could give the offense a jolt and leaves opponents’ heads spinning. I would expect to see this line at least a few times this season.

The Panthers are all in on this season without a doubt. Winning the cup will take versatility and resilience. The Claude Giroux trade gives them much more of both. The line options at Andre Brunette’s disposal gives him few excuses to not put a championship-caliber team on the ice. The Panthers are a juggernaut, and hopefully the rest of their season reflects that.

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