I know what you’re thinking – I’m grabbing on to a lot of hands that are helping me up onto the bandwagon. As usual Jets fans you’re right even when you’re wrong. The” fire Noel” bandwagon is full, noisy and already has too many drivers, but I've got my reasons for wanting Noel to be shown the door and they all didn’t occur over the last few games. The plain truth is that Noel has had several chances to right the ship over a period of two years and has instead only added to the degree of list.
Now let’s get one thing straight, like a lot of Jets fans I wanted to like Noel. He’s a quirky guy with a good sense of humour and a down home likability. He’s the type of guy you want to see succeed; he’s an every-man that fans in a blue collar town can relate to. The problem is, it’s simply not working out.
At the start of his tenure you could characterize the Noelian battle plan as “Run and Gun”, which is the style that as a fan I prefer. It doesn't always win games but it provides great entertainment and honestly isn’t that why we’re watching? I was ready to give coach a lot of line for dealing with the move, breaking the team of bad habits, and then the shortened season. However at the end of last year, cracks in the concrete started to appear. The team although it found success at times could be wildly inconsistent and seemed to lean on a shell shocked Ondrej Pavelec just a little too much. The penalty kill, and shots allowed were among the worst in the league. Games were being won on guts and determination in front of the home crowd as opposed to a methodical implementation of a system. Now I know that systems aren’t all that they’re cracked up to be in hockey, It’s a fluid game and set plays break down easily but the team seemed to lack more than that, it seemed lost, it had and continues to have, no identity. The lack of structure in the past was attributed to the unique set of circumstances put in front of the Jets, but as those hurdles have been cleared a cohesive team has failed to emerge, and that has to be laid directly at the feet of the coaching staff.
Coming into this season I was ready to extend coach Noel a clean slate. There was no big move, no strike, and the coaches’ plan had been in place for two years. The core players that had lived under the Noelian era were resigned, new players were added to shore up the second and third line and throughout the pre-season it was evident that the youngsters Trouba and Scheifelle were ready to make the leap to the NHL . Two scoring lines were in place, the third looked ready to kick in secondary scoring and the defence now had two really solid pairings with Jacob Trouba showing unlimited potential.
If there was a coaching philosophy in place now was the time for it to pay off.
Unfortunately it hasn't. With all the tools that seem to be at his disposal, I still don’t see Noels mark on this team. There is no ethos, no sense that this team is adhering to anything resembling a system. All I see as a fan is a lot of scrambling and Pavelec playing above average hockey. There are bright spots, but they seem uncoordinated at best, at worst it seems as though the players are making up their own strategies on the fly as the game progresses. As of right now there is no “Winnipeg Jets hockey” it’s just a string of good nights and bad nights with never ending line juggling that seems to be done on a wing and a prayer. As a fan I want to see a team that plays with an identity, a philosophy, something to live and die by, not a series of happenstance “things that seem like they might work” and unfortunately for Claude Noel and his staff that responsibility falls to them.
There have also been disturbing gaffs in player management that seem like they belong more in the minor leagues than the NHL. Ondrej Pavelec played more than any other goal tender in the NHL last year and faced the most shots. Whispers were that Pavelec was tired both mentally and physically down the stretch which may have explained some of his more inconsistent moments. Noel explained that Pavelec wanted to play, but honestly is it up to the player to make that call? Alexander Burmistrov was painted as being a “hard to coach” player and was benched, press boxed, or underused because of a so called personality clash between him and his coach. At the end of the day the Jets lost him as an asset to the KHL where Burmistrov has since flourished. With a new crop of young players making their way to the big club can Noel be trusted to manage them effectively? Already Mark Scheifelle, the Jets up and coming centre has found himself benched at times for not showing the coach what he wanted to see. Is this the most effective way to let your best players be your best players?
So what’s to be done?
Many will say that you can’t make judgments and drastic changes a few games into the season. To that I would say I’m making my judgments based 130+ games into the lifetime of this franchise. The excuses are gone and its time to at least reassess as we limp into another season of directionless hockey and lucky to be at 500 statistics.
First and foremost there is absolutely no need for three assistant coaches in this organization. The very fact that management felt there was a need to take special teams responsibilities away from the current staff and hire Perry Pearn is a red flag in itself. The fact that special teams may have actually gotten worse and that Pearn seems to have been relegated to the press box is a good reason to make showing him the door job 1. Firing Perry Pearn should also put the rest of the regime on notice with the message that things need to change and need to change in a hurry.
This brings me to the part of the rant I really don’t want to write. If this team can’t find its way out of the woods by the end of November it’s time for the buck to stop at the coaches desk. Claude Noel, likable character as he is will need to be let go. This franchise is simply running out of time and the honeymoon with the fans is in real danger of ending if the Winnipeg Jets don’t make a playoff appearance this year. It’s a critical time for the Jets and there is definitely no time to hope a coaching philosophy will finally take hold. So who takes the helm? I’ll leave that one up to the experts, but my sense is it has to be a authoritative presence that can quickly make a mark on the team and implement structure, less of a player coach and more of a “my way or the highway” personality.
In the end, quite frankly my sincerest hope is that I’m completely wrong and that this piece will be ridiculed over the next few months as a reactionary over simplification of a problem that didn't exist. I hope Claude Noel turns out to have a brilliant master plan and that I’ll look completely foolish. Unfortunately I suspect that this won’t be the case, and if not this organization is going to have to move quickly to find the person that will define what it means to play “Winnipeg Jets hockey”.