Sunday, 12 January 2014

This Feels Like Atlanta

If you haven't heard the news out of Winnipeg yet, you may have just woken up. The Jets announced today that they have relieved head coach Claude Noel and assistant coach Perry Pearn of their duties, replacing Noel with Paul Maurice, formerly of the Hurricanes and Maple Leafs. After last night's debacle against the Columbus Blue Jackets that saw the Jackets score four goals in nine minutes in the second period, the Jets felt that the time was right to make a move. I'll be blunt: this was NOT the right move.

Now let me be upfront here: I'm just a blogger. I don't know about the inner workings of the Winnipeg Jets and what may go on behind closed doors. I don't know if there were problems between coach and players, I have no information on how the team was being evaluated, and I certainly hold no title within the team that gives me any insight as to the timing and necessity of this move. What I will live and die by, however, is my own observations of this team that I see when they play. Clear? Clear.

The calamity that is the current version of the Winnipeg Jets is not the fault of Claude Noel. It is not Claude Noel who commits egregious turnovers in his own zone. It is not Claude Noel who doesn't show up to play each night. It is not Claude Noel who decides not to out-work, out-hustle, and out-grit the opponents on a nightly basis. It is not Claude Noel who should have lost his job with the Winnipeg Jets.

Granted, it is Claude Noel's job to have them ready to play each night. It is his system that the team is playing. It is his job to motivate this collection of players to work harder than their opponents. It is his job to assemble a line-up from the players he has been given that will compete for every point available. Claude Noel is not absolved from all the blame here, but the fact that the axe fell on him today is a sign that this team has not improved from its days in Atlanta.

Is that a coaching issue? Some could make a case for it, but here's why I disagree.

Claude Noel has never had a true number-one line in his three seasons with the Jets. He's had a couple of good second-lines to work with, but never a true, bonafide top line that he could put on the ice that would generate multiple scoring chances all night long. He worked with what he had - Little, Ladd, and Wheeler are good, but are any of them top-line material on a Stanley Cup contender? Do any of them strike fear in the opponents when they come over the boards? The sobering answer is no.

Secondly, the Jets aren't even in the realm of having mediocre goaltending, let alone elite goaltending. I will say that I believe Ondrej Pavelec can be a serviceable goaltender in the NHL, and he should remain with the Jets. The problem I see is that his confidence is shattered behind the patchwork defence assembled in front of him. He has been left hung out to dry far too often this season by the six defencemen in front of him, and he looks like his psyche and confidence are at an all-time low. When you are asked to routinely stop breakaways and odd-man rushes as well as bail out players after they make boneheaded plays night-in and night-out, you kind of lose faith in the whole process and in your own abilities. Especially if all those mistakes are finding the back of the net.

Again, Claude Noel is doing the best he can with the players assembled, but there are two defencemen playing regularly - Ellerby and Clitsome - that were waiver wire pickups and four guys who have regressed horribly this season. Rookie Jacob Trouba has been the lone bright spot for this defensive corps and, while still prone to some rookie mistakes, has been the guy who has been the most consistent Jet on the blue line.

Let me put this another way. Claude Noel has three AHL-calibre players in Ellerby, Clitsome, and Pardy playing NHL minutes. His "top defenceman" in Dustin Byfuglien is a team-worst -17 - the only Jets rearguard in double-digits in the minus category. In fact, if you took Byfuglien out of the equation, the Jets' defensive squad would be a combined -10 for all of the other defencemen who have suited up this season for a losing team. Anyone see a glaring issue here on the back-end?

People will pipe up and point to Byfuglien's 10 goals and 25 assists as a reason the big defenceman should be prominent in the Jets' plans going forward, but he's nothing more than a power-play specialist on a bad team. Don't believe me? At even-strength, Byfuglien has five goals and 13 assists. On the power-play, Byfuglien has five goals and 12 assists. Half of his points come while the Jets skate with the extra player on the ice.

"But Teebz," you say, "Shea Weber does the exact same thing in Nashville!" While I don't disagree with you as we take Weber's -14 into consideration, I will point out that both Nashville and Winnipeg are both out of the playoffs right now. Score all the power-play points you want, but there's still this little stat called "wins" that is far more important than some garbage power-play stats. Good players win awards, but good teams with championships. Neither Nashville nor Winnipeg are good teams, and I'm quite certain that Weber would trade power-play stats for more wins on the season.

I'm also going to point out that it seemed like Dustin Byfuglien had tuned Claude Noel out completely on most nights. I'll bring up the fact that he finished last season over 300lbs. as a clear sign of his lack of commitment to being a top player in this league. I'll bring up his refusal to play forward for any reason, often citing that that part of his career was over. I'll bring up the constant glaring defensive errors he made. I'll also bring up that none of this was caused by Claude Noel.

So in point all of that out, I will admit that there may have been problems between Claude Noel and Dustin Byfuglien for some time now. It also appeared that there was tension between Evander Kane and Noel after Kane was sat against Chicago after declaring himself injury-free after the morning skate on November 7. All of this could have factored into the decision today, but I still feel that Noel wasn't the problem with this team.

To me, this is a move by GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to put the pressure back on the players in terms of their performances. I understand that Cheveldayoff can't trade the whole team, so firing the coach is probably the easiest way to put the spotlight back on the players.

But this is the same team that collapsed under the pressure of making the playoffs last season. This is the same team that looked poised to earn the third-seed in the Eastern Conference by winning the Southeast Division last season only to see their season spiral out of control with about a month to play. This is the same team that is currently 3-14-3 against teams in their own division - teams they see more often than anyone else. So is it a personnel problem?

Perhaps the most telling sign that this team was built to fail as it is doing currently was revealed today. When asked at the press conference today at MTS Centre surrounding Noel's dismissal, Kevin Cheveldayoff was asked if he did everything he could to help Claude Noel succeed. His answer?

"I would say no."

So then who is really to blame here? If Cheveldayoff didn't do everything he could to help his coach and his team succeed, isn't this team just a reflection of the management style of the Winnipeg Jets' GM? That's a damning statement for a GM to make just hours after firing the head coach. Why would anyone want to coach here after hearing that the GM didn't do everything he could to help his club? Why would any players want to sign here in hearing that statement? While I appreciate the honesty of Cheveldayoff in assessing his role in all this, that kind of comment can kill a franchise.

Taking that comment into account, let's go back to the fact that the Jets have never had a legitimate first-line. Let's identify that the Jets have had average-to-mediocre goaltending. Let's remember that the Jets are using three AHL-calibre players in their top-six defencemen most nights. Let's remember that this is a team with little to no depth when it comes to an NHL roster. That's all on the GM, and Kevin Cheveldayoff has to be held accountable for his part in this debacle. Sure, Cheveldayoff has started to restock the cupboards with some good drafting, but the Jets simply aren't getting the results they need right now with the roster they roll out every night.

While this Jets team currently finds itself in an ugly funk, there's hope that the experienced Paul Maurice can bring some stability back to the club and put this team on the right track when it comes to wins and losses. When asked about Maurice, former player and current TSN analyst Jeff O'Neill had this to say about his former bench boss in Carolina: "He's dealt with adversity before. He knows how to handle these situations because in Carolina we had some teams that weren't very good and he did get a lot out of us for the talent that we had on the roster."

Jets fans had better hope that Maurice can find a way to squeeze a lot more out of this roster in a hurry. Otherwise, it will be another long summer in Winnipeg for the Jets.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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