For those of us who thought, and my hand is raised, that Claude Noel got a bum deal after being let go as head coach of the Winnipeg Jets on January 12th, it turns out we might be mistaken. To some of us, it felt that General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff was putting too much blame on Noel who was coaching a team in its first season in the more competitive Western Conference. Turns out, all the Jets’ young, talented roster needed was a kick in the right direction.
Cheveldayoff hired Paul Maurice to replace Noel and since Maurice’s debut on January 13th, a victorious one against the Phoenix Coyotes, the Jets have gone on to win 8 of 10 games. The two losses, against the San Jose Sharks and Nashville Predators, were both by one goal. In those games they have also defeated the Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks on the road and became the first team to beat the powerhouse Anaheim Ducks in regulation time at the Honda Center.
Under Noel, the Jets were 8 points off last year’s pace . Under Maurice, the team is ahead in points of the 2011-2012 Jets after the same number of games. Ten games ago they were 10 points out of a playoff spot, now they are 4 points behind the Vancouver Canucks in the Wild Card race.
Maurice’s game plan focuses on a man-to-man in-zone defensive system that, admittedly, is a work in progress but one that seems to be sinking in with the young Jets’ roster: “This defensive zone concept, it’s not like you write it on the board you get it and you go and there’s your defence for the rest of your life, it’s a work in progress,” Maurice said. “There wasn’t a letdown [against the Nashville Predators]. They weren’t running out of position, getting away from what they were trying to do to break a game open.”
The improvement on the Jets’ defensive game has been the first of three phases of the game that Maurice is looking to revamp. He has already started work on the second, team offense, and thanks to some stellar goaltending from both goaltenders and a rejuvenated defensive system it seems that the team’s offense is already starting to organize itself with a +11 goal differential since Maurice took over. The final phase to be implemented is the neutral-zone coverage which the new coach intends to focus on during the Olympic break.
Considering the team is currently on schedule according to Maurice’s desired improvements, its hard to believe that his biggest struggle thus far has been finding time to schedule practices amidst the Jets’ grueling travel schedule. Said Maurice: “The Western Conference travel is the one I spend the most time talking about; just the number of days that are almost scheduled to travel. We had a short flight [Sunday], it’s only an hour and a half [from Chicago to Winnipeg], and the guys got in at 2 a.m. after clearing customs and everything we go through. It’s about when to practice the team. We are going to be playing [Tuesday] and our last practice was Monday the 20th. That’s the challenge.”
Despite the scheduling challenges, it’s clear the team wants to win and their dedicated effort night in and night out since Maurice took over points to the desire to excel, compete and repay their fans for their unwavering early support during difficult times. The team certainly felt responsible for the shower of boos that led them off the ice during their six game losing streak and the fact that Noel lost his job because of the team’s lack of effort. “I don’t think anyone expected [Noel to be fired] so it’s not an easy day,” Captain Andrew Ladd told the Globe and Mail at the time. “Two good people lose their job. Ultimately, it came down to the performance of all the guys in here. It’s tough for everyone.”
Ladd is right. Noel can’t possible shoulder the responsibility for all the team’s woes and it’s easy to argue that the coaching change was a wake up call for a team that was sleepwalking through the first half of the season. At the same time, the young roster is buying into Maurice’s system and most would have been satisfied with a record over .500 in his first 10 games. Instead the team is excelling with little sign of slowing down.
The Jets have three games left before the Olympic Break to continue their upward swing and try to force themselves into the playoffs. They will visit the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday, the Washington Capitals on Thursday and the St. Louis Blues on Saturday.