Coaches that know they’re a scant few losses from being fired have to keep their dignity. So it was with Winnipeg Jets coach Claude Noel last Thursday when he said this, to the Winnipeg Sun:
“We’re going to win here one day. I’m hoping to be here one day. We are going to win here one day. And then I’ll be able to sit here and say, ‘We’re winning now.’ That’s gonna happen. I’m confident in that.”
On Sunday, Noel slowly lowered the boom box from over his head, realized he wasn’t getting the girl and was fired by the Winnipeg Jets along with assistant coach Perry Pearn.
Enter Paul Maurice, last seen as a smarty pants pundit on TSN and The NHL Network, but best known for his stints with Hartford Whalers, Carolina Hurricanes, Toronto Maple Leafs, the Carolina Hurricanes again and, most notably, Metallurg Magnitogorsk.
The Jets had basically hit rock bottom, and Noel paid the price for an overpaid rotten core on the roster. A three-game winning streak at the end of 2013 was erased by a 5-game losing streak in which the Jets didn’t allow less than four goals in any of the games – including six spots yielded to the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets.
Noel’s a well-liked guy who handled a gig that had its share of bumps with class. But he was still 80-79-18 in three playoff-less seasons. Which was fine when the Jets were still on a contact high from their relocation lovefest, but not so much when a funny thing called “expectations” were placed on the team and the Jets no longer had the warm blanket of the Southeast Division to cover their problems.
Those problems include Ondrej Pavelec, statistically one of the worst starting goaltenders in the NHL and one signed through 2017. They include a roster whose core hasn’t been dramatically altered since the team’s days in Atlanta, with a cap number of over $63 million for a last place team. This led to months of scrutiny for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and his odd hesitancy to make significant upgrades to the roster.
And what happens when the GM comes under fire? He fires the guy whose losing team is putting his own missteps under the microscope.
Then again, they’re perceived missteps, aren’t they?
The great hope in hiring Paul Maurice is that he finds a way to connect the dots with this roster in a way Noel couldn’t. Maybe Evander Kane becomes a content point-per-game player. Maybe Dustin Byfuglien stops giving away pucks like they're samples at Costco, so Gary Lawless doesn’t have to pen another “run this guy outta town” column. Maybe the defense tightens in front of Pavelec. Maybe guys start earning their lofty dough.
Maurice should command respect. He’s coached for the Stanley Cup and has two conference final appearances. He’s generally considered one of the smartest hockey men in the game, but that usually happens to coaches when they get airtime on TSN. He has a reputation for developing young players, going back to his days in the AHL.
The downside is that … well, it’s that he’s not the general manager.
We’re going to find out rather quickly whether the Jets’ issue is one of coaching or construction.
Noel wasn’t necessarily Cheveldayoff’s hire. One got the sense he was keen on hiring Mike Haviland, a former assistant with the Chicago Blackhawks when Chevy was there; but Noel had ties to the Manitoba Moose, which is sorta important when nearly everyone else in the organization does too.
Maurice, we assume, is Cheveldayoff’s guy. He’s the guy he believes can give the Jets the identity he wants them to have, and the guy who can make the roster he built work. And if it doesn’t, well, then the heat lamp gets a bit more intense over the GM’s head.
Maurice was ready to coach again, and he’s as familiar with the League as anyone. Winnipeg’s the right kind of market for him – Maurice is much better in a smaller market than in the Toronto spotlight, for example.
(Ironically, he was rumored to have been a finalist for the Atlanta Thrashers’ opening in 2008 when John Anderson was hired … the same John Anderson that was Cheveldayoff’s coach with the Chicago Wolves.)
Maurice can thrive with the Jets if Cheveldayoff clears out the dead weight and gives him the right personnel.
A goalie with a save percentage north of .900 would be a nice start.