Of all the embattled head coaches from the early stages of this season — Columbus’ Scott Arniel, Ottawa’s Paul MacLean, Montreal’s Jacques Martin — one really jumps off the page: Winnipeg’s Claude Noel.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Upon being named Jets coach, many thought Noel was in a good position. He had ties to the community, having previously coached Manitoba of the AHL. He had NHL experience, going 10-8-6 as Columbus’ interim coach. And he was in a market so starved for the NHL, nobody would care how badly the team played! Or so went the school of thought.
But now Winnipeg’s six games into the season (with a 1-4-1 record) and the good times have stopped rolling. Come to a screeching halt, actually. The Jets are last in the division, last in the conference and tied for the worst goal differential in the league.
And if you’re looking for textbook examples of players and coach lacking harmony, consider the following:
— After a 4-1 loss to Phoenix dropped Winnipeg to 0-3, Noel ripped his team. “If I look at the three games and the way they went . . . are we achieving to the level that I think we should be? The answer would be no, we are underachieving. We are way below the bar,” he said. “Why is that? Why are you, an NHL player, playing like an American league player?”
— Noel then had a “clear the air” meeting with team captain Andrew Ladd and alternate captains Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom, Mark Stuart and Chris Thorburn. Ron Hainsey was also invited, presumably to keep the minutes.
— The message Noel got from the meeting? Chaos. “We cleared up the chaos,” Noel said.
— Following the meeting, Winnipeg got its first win of the year, a spirited 2-1 decision over Pittsburgh. Noel responded to the win by…saying he didn’t like how his players practiced. Also, they needed to break their bad habits.
— On Thursday, the Jets lost 4-1 to Ottawa, regarded by many as the NHL’s worst team. That game was highlighted by Noel pulling goalie Ondrej Pavelec during a power-play with five minutes to go.
— On Friday, Noel went out of his way to say C Alexander Burmistrov is his team’s best player. “He’s been our best forward since the season started,” Noel told the Winnipeg Free Press. “A 19-year-old player is our best player. He’s the one guy I’m happy with.”
Reading between the lines, this sounds like a coach that doesn’t like his team. And judging by the on-ice effort, a team that doesn’t particularly like its coach. But will anything come of it? Winnipeg is playing to capacity crowds nightly and TSN play-by-play man Chris Cuthbert said there “seems to be a prevailing feeling around the National Hockey League that they’re everybody’s second favorite team.” From an outside perspective, everything is sunshine and lollipops and there’d be no reason to change a thing.
You just have to wonder what the inside perspective is like.