Under Pressure: Claude Noel

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“Under Pressure” is a preseason series we’ll be running on PHT. For each team in the NHL, we’ll pick one player, coach, GM, mascot or whatever that everyone will be watching closely this season. Feel free to play the song as you read along. Also feel free to go to the comment section and tell us we picked poorly.

For the Winnipeg Jets, we pick … head coach Claude Noel.

And we pick him the same day his boss, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, got a contract extension.

Noel got his own extension in June; however, the fact it was only for one year, taking him through the 2014-15 season, was telling. (An overwhelming vote of confidence, it was not.)

The Jets have missed the playoffs the past two seasons under Noel. And this summer, ownership committed millions of dollars in contract extensions ($93.1 million, to be exact) for defenseman Zach Bogosian and forwards Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler. Which is why the general consensus is the coach cannot afford to miss the playoffs again.

Fair or not, much of Noel’s future with the organization may depend on the ability of his starting goalie, Ondrej Pavelec, to get the job done.

“I’m confident in our goaltending and I think our goaltending can help us get in the playoffs,” Noel said recently. “We’re going to have to play a good team game and our goalies are going to have to do their part.”

Pavelec registered a modest .905 save percentage last season, and his career number is just .907.

Of course, the coach’s future will also depend on his own ability to get the most out of a roster that features a decent amount of well-compensated talent. In addition to the previously mentioned Bogosian, Little, and Wheeler, the Jets also have Andrew Ladd, Evander Kane, Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom making healthy salaries.

Noel doesn’t play it safe when it comes to motivating his players, either. In February, he famously ripped the Jets after they got off to a 5-6-1 start.

“I don’t like the way we play,” he said. “I just don’t think that we play hard enough.”

And ahead of the 2013-14 campaign, Noel has been talking tough again.

“We’re going to need a lot more commitment from players on both sides of the puck,” he said — a comment the Winnipeg Sun called “a fairly strong indictment of the returning cast.”

With eight of their first 10 games at home at the MTS Centre, the Jets have a great opportunity to start strong and gather some momentum for the long season. Anything less and the man behind the bench may want to stay standing, because his seat could get pretty hot.

For all of our Under Pressure series, click here.

Video: Devils’ Butcher with some razzle dazzle to set up Boyle

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If you’re the type to get annoyed when college free agents soak up a lot of attention during the dog days of the hockey summer (Brandon Dubinsky is nodding), you were probably fed up with defenseman Will Butcher by the time he chose the New Jersey Devils as his destination.

Well, at least the 22-year-old blueliner is backing up the hype, especially when it comes to setting up goals.

Butcher’s 15th assist (and 17th point of the season) ranks as one of his best yet, as he totally baffled the Vancouver Canucks before setting up a Brian Boyle goal. You can watch that sweet helper in the video above this post’s headline.

Speaking of Devils rookies, it seems like Nico Hischier is OK after this Alex Edler hit, but the Devils might be wise to keep an eye on the top pick of the 2017 NHL Draft, as this looked a little worrisome:

Again, it seems like Hischier avoided injury, yet we shall see.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Well, at least Flyers are getting ‘loser points’

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Love it or hate it, the loser point is a reality in the NHL, and the Philadelphia Flyers are one of the teams that really make things weird with what is now an 8-9-6 record in 2017-18.

8-9-6. Look at that. It almost makes your eyes hurt, right? Something just seems wrong about that.

No doubt about it, there are a lot of reasons to be frustrated if you’re a Flyers fan right now. Most obviously: they’ve now lost seven straight games after falling 5-4 in OT to the New York Islanders. Philly came into the third period with a 4-2 lead that they squandered, aside from getting a “loser point.” There’s at least some frustration with head coach Dave Hakstol:

Still, in this weird standings format, not all losing streaks are equal.

Bad: They dropped two straight games to the Islanders. Good-ish: At least both games went to overtime.

Bad: Yeah, teams that want to take the next step can’t afford many slumps like seven games without a win. Good-ish: They grabbed four points during this skid. They’re at least scrapping for points when they can, in general; while they only have two wins in their last 10 games, yet they’ve managed at least a standings point in all but three (2-3-5, ugh).

Bad: The Flyers are tied for last in the Metropolitan Division, and they’re really last since they’ve generated 22 points in 23 games while the Hurricanes have that many in 20 games played. Good-ish: While they have disadvantages that would force them to make a real run to do damage, you can’t rule out the Flyers in the wild card races.

Ultimately, this team remains … perplexing.

They have one foot in the current, with good stuff like the dominant Claude GirouxSean CouturierJakub Voracek line in mind, even if some of that makes moves like the Brayden Schenn trade sting a little extra. On the other hand, they’re trying to bring along a group of wet-behind-the-ears defensemen, and there’s a fear that that group will take long enough to hit its stride than some of those forwards will start to hit the wall of regression.

Ultimately, it might be crucial for GM Ron Hextall to figure out what to emphasize in the near future, particularly the trade deadline.

At the moment, the Flyers are essentially aiming for the best of both worlds: developing that young talent while hoping to be competitive. That’s a great have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too scenario, but sometimes teams really lower their ceilings by being too trigger-shy to commit one way or the other.

You’d think with a seven-game losing streak, that Philly would be downright-bad. Instead, they seem more stuck in the middle, and such a situation presents its own set of problems, or at least some head-scratching questions.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Jets basically have two top lines, and that’s scary

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At times, this season feels like The Year of the Mega-Lines.

Even so, the modern NHL is cruel to offense, and many of us are waiting for the other shoe to drop, as much as we want the fun to continue. What if Steven StamkosNikita Kucherov is driven down by injuries? Can Brayden Schenn remain a point-per-game player with Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz into the spring?

A lot has been going right for the Winnipeg Jets lately, as they improved to 14-5-3 after beating the Anaheim Ducks 4-1 on Friday. It was their sixth win in seven games; they’ve gone 11-2-3 since beginning 2017-18 with a sputtering 3-3-0 mark.

Still, there are some of those red flags that make you wonder if the party might stop soon. They ranked second in the NHL in even-strength PDO (via Natural Stat Trick) coming into today’s action, one of the go-to signs that a Cinderella story may end. Their possession numbers have left much to be desired. Connor Hellebuyck might be playing over his head.

All or at least most of those considerations are worth some concern.

Even so, Friday managed to shine a spotlight on a scary notion: the Jets might possess the equivalent of two “top lines,” or at least an electric top duo and a young, rising one that isn’t far behind.

Around the start of the season, the Jets raised some eyebrows – mine, anyway – by handing Nikolaj Ehlers a seven-year extension that carries a $6 million cap hit. It’s not like the 21-year-old lacked signs of brilliance; instead, it was just a little startling to see them be so proactive with a big contract and term rather than seeing if his 25-goal, 64-point breakthrough from 2016-17 was “for real.”

It’s incredibly early, but Ehlers is making it look like a wise decision, if not an outright steal. There are even moments when you might catch yourself wondering, “Is he just about as good as Patrik Laine?”

Perhaps the Ducks thought that way today, as Ehlers dropped two goals and an assist on them.

Snickers turn to nods of begrudging approval when you hear talk about “shot quality” with a team that might just have an excess of high-end shooters. After all, you can only cheat to cut off shooters so much if it means giving Ehlers too much time and space:

Laine played somewhere between coy and possum when discussing how hockey was “hard” for him during a relative scoring slump, as he’s climbing to right where the Jets would want him to be. Since November began, the 19-year-old has only failed to score a point in a single game and averages a point-per-night. (Overall, he has 17 points in 22 contests.)

This outburst gives Ehlers 10 goals and 17 points, and perhaps the Jets’ risky investment in Bryan Little may look better if he can merely set the table for these two. Perhaps it’s fair to say that the Ehlers – Laine benefit from the occasional wake-up call, though.

And, again, the scary part is that Ehlers – Laine isn’t even the first pairing you’d underline on the whiteboard.

Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler both sit at 25 points even after being blanked on Friday, and it seems like they might have found their third amigo in Kyle Connor, another young forward coming up the ranks in Winnipeg.

It has to be disheartening for opponents to consider that they might shut down Scheifele – Wheeler and still get blitzed out of the building by Laine and Ehlers, yet that’s the predicament you face, particularly since the Jets boast the sort of defensemen who might force you to “stay honest” in the likes of Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba.

Does this all mean that Winnipeg can just pencil in its first playoff games, nay, series wins already? No, they have questions, all the way up to if Paul Maurice can make it all work.

That said, days like these make you wonder if the talent will do all the work for him.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Bruins, Khudobin top Penguins for fourth straight win

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Don’t look now but here come the Boston Bruins.

Thanks to their 4-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday afternoon the Bruins were able to continue their climb up the Eastern Conference standings with their fourth consecutive win, all of them coming with backup goaltender Anton Khubodin in net.

Friday’s win ended up being a little more difficult than it looked after 20 minutes.

The Bruins stormed out of the gates and dominated the first period, scoring a pair of goals and limiting the Penguins to just four shots on goal. They held a 3-1 lead in the second period until the Penguins were able to strike back with a pair of goals, including a really flukey game-tying goal from Sidney Crosby that needed to go through two different replay reviews, to tie the game.

But early in the third period David Pastrnak was able to sneak behind the Penguins’ defense on a breakaway and score what would prove to be the game-winning goal.

With that win the Bruins are for the time being in the third playoff spot in the Atlantic Division.

The Penguins, meanwhile, continue to look like a lost hockey team. Their loss on Friday was their ninth in their past 13 games and they have still just won just 11 of their first 24 games this season.

Friday’s game was also the Penguins’ third consecutive loss.

Defense continues to be an issue, as does depth scoring and 5-on-5 offense.

Things will not get any easier for the Penguins on Saturday when they have to return home for a game against the NHL’s best team, the Tampa Bay Lightning.

It will be the third time the Penguins have played the Lightning this season in the second half of a back-to-back situation. They lost the first two games by a combined score of 12-5.