Maurice will have one type of team if the lockout persists and another if it ends. The KHL plays a 56-game season and then three rounds of playoffs, but if the NHL season is salvaged, come crunch time, Magnitogorsk will not have its Big Three around. Coaches need to worry more about the task at hand – the next game – than what the team might look like in January or March, but Maurice says he’s trying to think big-picture thoughts and have a Plan B in mind if the lockout ends.
“I don’t follow it [the lockout], because I’ve seen it and been through it before,” Maurice said. “Everybody always asks ‘What’s going on over there?’ and the answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ But I don’t know any more or less than I would if I was in North America. I know probably what most people do – that it’s going to take some time.”
Is Maurice happy? The question, at the end of a long, illuminating conversation, made him pause momentarily.
“Happy is … ask any coach during the season, ‘How happy are you?’ For that part of it, nothing’s different. The moods you’re in, when you lose, it’s exactly the same. Some things just don’t change.
“What I had hoped to accomplish as a coach philosophically, I’m pretty sure I’m going to have that accomplished when I leave here, just in terms of my own development and trying to find different ways to teach.
“I will tell you,” Maurice added, “I have a completely different appreciation for the personality of European players now. They spend their whole life playing hockey a certain way, with a certain mindset. Then you bring them to North America and talk to them for a week and expect them to change. It’s not going to happen.
“They think the game differently because that’s how the game is played here. When they’re throwing the puck rink-wide across the blueline and you’re on the bench, saying ‘dump it in,’ they’ve never heard that before. They don’t know why they’d do that. The turnover, for them, is not that big a crime. The one good pass, through 12 guys and then onto the tape, for them, that’s awesome.
“So the challenge for a young European player to come over and play in the NHL, even if his English is good, is huge. As a young coach in the NHL, I didn’t have an appreciation for that. I started to understand that later, but now that I’ve been here, I fully grasp that picture.”
Because this is, after all, Russia, where Nolan Pratt’s words to Maurice all those months ago have proved prophetic. It’s different. Just different.
KULEMIN HAS A FAN IN MAURICE
Kulemin may not have had much of a year playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs last season (28 points in 70 games), but he already has a big fan in the ex-Leaf coach. Maurice didn’t know much about him before arriving in Russia because Kulemin joined the Leafs just after Maurice was fired. By contrast, Malkin and Gonchar have crossed his path frequently as opponents.
Beyond their talents, Maurice says that trio helpfully brought some of their NHL sensibilities to the KHL, which has made his coaching job an easier sell.
Example: Maurice had been having a hard time convincing his team to shoot the puck more on the power play “because here, on the big ice, you can hang on to it the whole time. So Gonchar and Malkin show up and they say, ‘We’ve got to shoot the puck more’ and so it’s done. Everybody says, ‘oh, okay.Gonchar has been such a great pro, in terms of working out and going on the ice twice a day,” Maurice said.
“Malkin is only 25 years old. People forget that. It’s amazing, when he walks in, to see how young he is. But Kulemin was the one, I didn’t realize how powerful a man he was. He has absolutely worked as hard as he could and it’s so noticeable. I spent 2 1/2 months trying to convince the guys to be in better shape, and then these guys come in, and you say, ‘That’s what I’m talking about. Work like that. Work that hard every time.’”