LAS VEGAS — The joy Paul Maurice felt on the morning of the start of the Stanley Cup Final was also tinged with sadness. The veteran coach knew there were only at most seven more games left to play.
He had developed a greater appreciation for this moment with the Florida Panthers, 21 removed from his first trip to the final. Bruce Cassidy felt the same way being back as coach of the Vegas Golden Knights four years after falling one win short with Boston.
One of them will hoist the Cup for the first time, and their presence in the final is evidence of why NHL teams looking to win put a priority on experienced coaches. Often derided as “recycled” or “retreads,” coaches like Maurice and Cassidy provide tangible value navigating crucial situations.
“Depending on where your team’s at likely dictates to some extent the decisions that you’re going to make with respect to that position,” said Vegas general manager Kelly McCrimmon, who fired Peter DeBoer after his team missed the playoffs last year and turned to Cassidy, who was fresh off being dismissed by the Bruins. “We felt for our organization, a successful, experienced coach was the right coach for our team.”
So did the Panthers, who last season won the Presidents’ Trophy as the best team in the regular season and lost in the second round of the playoffs under interim coach Andrew Brunette — in a head job for the first time. Maurice in December 2021 stepped away from his third NHL job and 24th season with Winnipeg and offered the kind of steady hand GM Bill Zito was looking for to take Florida to the next level of contending for a championship.
“You have the experience, it’s invaluable,” Zito said. “Maybe you’re a little more savvy. And a collective experience that breeds wisdom has significant value.”
Maurice, whose team lost Game 1, 5-2, on Saturday and will look to even the series Monday, sees the value in being able to take in this experience more than in previous decades. His calm demeanor helped the Panthers go from down 3-1 to Boston in the first round to winning that series and two more to reach this point.
“I think the biggest part of experience is maybe you have a little bit of understanding of the pressures of both rooms,” Maurice said. “Over time, when you go in and play a team like Boston, what their room’s dealing with, what your room’s dealing with, what’s that room like at 3-1, what’s your room like at 1-3, so that helps.”
It helps to have the right match between players and a coach. Veteran forward Eric Staal has believed for some time, “This group needed Paul, and Paul needed this group.”
Staal would know. Maurice was his first coach in the pros back with Carolina in 2003-04. Maurice was fired after the Hurricanes won just eight of their first 30 games, and replacement Peter Laviolette coached them to the Stanley Cup in 2006.
Maurice is a different coach now. He reflected Sunday on how when he broke into the NHL in the mid-1990s, all coaches did was growl at players, whereas now it’s about connecting with them and knowing what buttons to push.
“He understands not only the game but players and people and how to articulate what he’s trying to [say],” Staal said. “He’s got a tremendous skill in that.”
Cassidy possesses a similar skill, which has evolved since a failed stint in Washington as a young, green coach in 2002-04 and helped the Bruins make the playoffs six years in a row, reaching the final in 2019.They still fired him after a first-round exit last year.
He was out of a job for a week.
McCrimmon saw a coach, who like Tampa Bay’s two-time Stanley Cup champion Jon Cooper, had strong depth of knowledge from spending a long period in one organization. And is good at this coaching thing.
“We’re in the winning business,” McCrimmon said. “He’d done lots of that, so that’s why we brought him in. And I think that he’s met our expectations and more along the way.”
Cassidy compared this stop — getting to know a lot of new people and making a big life adjustment — more to Washington than Boston. But he’s 58 now and 20 years better than he was with the Capitals.
“Now I have a resume,” Cassidy said, “so it’s a little easier to walk into a room and sort of command the group.”
Command is exactly what he did last round when the Golden Knights, up 3-0 in their series against Dallas, lost two in a row to send the series to a Game 6. Center Chandler Stephenson said Cassidy held a meeting before that game to deliver the message, “let’s close this out,” and Vegas played arguably its best game of the season, let alone the series.
Stephenson compared that to his last trip to the final, with the Capitals in 2018 when they had similarly seasoned coach Barry Trotz and beat Vegas for the Cup. The looseness Trotz displayed and the importance of it Stephenson now sees in Cassidy.
“I think just knowing what to expect, knowing what it’s like and to react and not really overreact is a big thing,” Stephenson said. “He’s been through it. He knows.”
Without a goal all playoffs, Shea Theodore found the net just when the Vegas Golden Knights needed it.
With Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final tied at 1 midway through the second period, Theodore took a pass at one side of the blue line, skated to the other side, circled back to dangle Florida Panthers forward Anthony Duclair and move into the slot before firing a wrist shot past Sergei Bobrovsky.
It was vintage Theodore. And it came at a critical juncture.
Theodore’s goal ignited the crowd and, more importantly, his team. He also had an assist in Vegas’ series-opening 5-2 victory Saturday night, which was something of a show of redemption for the 27-year-old defenseman, who snapped a 27-game scoring drought dating to March 7.