When Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff hit the podium to announce the Jets’ coaching change on Sunday morning many were sorry to see one of the most quotable coaches in the NHL pay the price for a transition season but the truth is, no one was really surprised, since, after three seasons, fans had finally started to turn on their beloved team.
Jets head coach Claude Noel was fired along with assistant coach Perry Pearn after a 6-3 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday, the team’s fifth loss in a row. It was their worst losing streak of the season and their second five game losing streak in two years. The Jets gave up four goals in 9 minutes and were subsequently booed off the ice by fans at the MTS Center.
Claude Noel had been at the helm since the team moved to Winnipeg for the 2011-2012 season. His record was 80-79-18 over 177 games, a .500 points %.
The Jets finished 9th in the Eastern Conference last season, just four points out of a playoff spot. This season, despite high expectations, the Jets are 6 points behind last year’s pace and 10 points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. The difficult season to date has seen Noel’s point percentage dip to .457%.
Most in Winnipeg felt the change was coming. Many even asked for it through social media outbursts and braying at home games. However, it’s hard to blame Noel for the team’s struggles given untimely injuries to key players as well as a move to the much tougher Central Division that boasts three of the six best teams in the League including the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche.
A December 20th look at the usage of players by Rob Vollman at the Bleacher Report indicated that, for the most part, Noel was getting the most out of his best players. Such stats certainly don’t tell the full story, but it’s hard not to acknowledge that they point to a well-documented goaltending problem or even that perhaps the right players have not been recruited to move forward as a team.
Still, Cheveldayoff was not willing to acknowledge his hand in the current state of the team, and worse, his, and the fans’, unrealistic expectations for the team he built ultimately cost Noel his job. “We envisioned that we would be certainly higher in the standings,” Chevaldayoff said during his news conference. There was a lot wrong with the level of play the Jets were putting on the ice night in and night out and for that Noel is responsible, but it’s also disappointing that Cheveladayoff didn’t acknowledge that this season was going to be heaps and bounds more difficult than last.
It also makes it hard not to wonder if declining attendance and a growing propensity for fans to vocalize their displeasure forced the GMs hand in the end, since, as veteran forward Olli Jokinen put it, “This is a tough market to play,” Jokinen said. “Any Canadian market you play, you know expectations are high. You’ve got a lot of media attention, you’ve got 15,000 GMs watching the games and another couple 100,000 at home.” The honeymoon is over for Jets fans who expect more than just the privilege of enjoying NHL hockey again in their city, regardless of a transition year.
Cheveldayoff admitted to putting the call out to new head coach Paul Maurice to gauge his interest as early as Tuesday, after the Jets dropped a 4-2 decision to the Tampa Bay Lightning, their fourth loss in the streak. The former head coach of the Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs was on a plane Sunday night and debuted last night in a 5-1 win over the Phoenix Coyotes. Maurice was applauded when his face appeared on screen during the national anthem ; a reminder that Cheveldayoff had read his audience perfectly.
While Maurice’s professionalism and preparedness recommended him to the Jets’ GM, Paul Maurice also arrives in Winnipeg with over 1000 games of NHL experience and a 460-457-99 record, a point % that puts him on par with Noel after a much longer run, though to be fair, that run does include three playoff appearances and one Cup Final appearance.
Maurice will have his work cut out for him, as the excitement of a new face behind the bench wears off for fans and players and the rough climb back into a playoff spot becomes a reality. It’s hard to predict whether Maurice will manage better results for a Jets team that has yet to compete in their division, but here’s hoping for the best.
The Jets are in Calgary to take on the Flames on Thursday and return to the MTS Centre on Saturday to welcome the Edmonton Oilers.