Maurice saw tough days ahead with retooled Panthers: 'It was going to be a challenge'

Paul Maurice expected some growing pains.

Hired to lead the Florida Panthers – a team coming off its best-ever regular-season, but a disappointing playoff performance – the veteran head coach also knew there would be tough days.

A completely new system. A roster renovation. A team looking for a different identity.

"It was part of the job interview," Maurice said of the outlook before he was handed the keys to the organization. "(General manager Bill Zito) had a really good understanding of what it was going to look like this year.

"It was going to be a challenge at times."

That's certainly been the case for the reigning Presidents' Trophy winners 46 games into the 2022-23 schedule.

The NHL's best regular-season team a year ago, the Panthers have been largely stuck in neutral.

Maurice pointed to overall health and a tricky, road-heavy schedule as factors contributing to his team sitting below the playoff cutline in mid-January.

But there's also been drastic structural change coupled with the blockbuster trade that brought Matthew Tkachuk to South Florida and saw star forward Jonathan Huberdeau and defenceman MacKenzie Weegar join the Calgary Flames.

"Our team's different," said Maurice, who replaced interim coach Andrew Brunette. "We have different personnel and we had to learn to adapt to play a different kind of game. We still put an awful lot of pucks at the net, we get lots of great chances to score, but (also) defending against it.

"Got to learn how to grind."

Tkachuk has thrived with 22 goals and 56 points in 43 games, but lamented an overall slow start that has seen the Panthers fail to win three straight contests.

"Left a lot of points out there," said the gritty winger. "Since Christmas, we've started to find, and probably have found, our identity and how we have to play.

"We're just building off of that."

Florida forward Sam Bennett – Tkachuk’s teammate in Calgary and a Panther since 2021 – said the group still has enough runway to make the post-season.

"New system, new coaching staff and a bunch of new players," said Bennett, whose team was swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in last spring's second round.

"We've got that all out of the way now and we've got everything figured out."

But he added it was tough to wave goodbye to those influential teammates following a 122-point campaign.

"They're our friends first," Bennett said. "But that's part of the game."

Like with any new coach, the Panthers took some time to figure out what Maurice requires.

"The coach that's been hardest on me in what he expects ... and I love that," said Tkachuk, who played against Maurice plenty when he was behind the Winnipeg Jets bench. "The guys love it. Practices are intense, expects a lot out of us.

"When you come to the rink, you know exactly what you're going to get."

Maurice, for his part, was taken aback when told Tkachuk – who suited up for Darryl Sutter in Calgary – felt he was hard on him.

"I've become a kinder, gentler person," Maurice said. "I've asked Matthew to embrace other parts of his game, and he has."

Like most on the outside, Maurice had an opinion of tenacious Tkachuk's style.

And then there's getting to know someone up close. The skill is one thing, but for Maurice, it's more about the person.

"We all know players from the bench or from the TV," said the coach. "He's cantankerous and edgy and a pest. But he's just a wonderful guy."

With his team getting healthier, and a boatload of home games on deck after this month, Maurice is optimistic about Florida's ability to get back in the fight.

"Our analytics are way better than our record," he said, before adding with a laugh: "In Winnipeg, my analytics were way worse than the record, so I can't use that as an argument. We've got a good differential 5-on-5, our penalty killing has struggled, but now it's getting stronger.

"The trending is positive."

There's also no time to spare.


Maurice resigned from the Jets – a team he'd led since January 2014 – last December, stating the players needed "a new voice" in the locker room.

Winnipeg struggled in the aftermath and missed the playoffs, but has rebounded this season and sat tied for first in the Central Division heading to Wednesday's action under head coach Rick Bowness.

"It's for Winnipeg," Maurice said. "I'm happy for the guys. They got a good push – exactly (how) you hoped they would rebound. But more for the fans, right?

"They love that team."


Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau has experienced a miserable season.

His roster hasn't come close to meeting expectations, while club president Jim Rutherford said at a press conference this week he's spoken to potential replacements.

The writing appears to be on the wall in Vancouver, but four more wins for the 68-year-old would move him into sole possession of 19th place on the NHL's all-time list.

Boudreau's 617 career victories are tied with Jacques Lemaire and four back of Bryan Murray.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 18, 2023.


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Joshua Clipperton's weekly NHL notebook is published every Wednesday.

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press