Photo by clydeorama
In the busy world of blogging, what with all the cheeto eating and all, I sometimes get to things a bit late. Such was the case with Claude Noel’s opening press conference from Wednesday – the content of which I imagined to be the usual banality about clean slates for the people who struggled and building on last season for the people who didn’t. Certainly there was some of that. But at the 15 minute mark came a moment in which Noel showed a sensibility for the game I wasn’t sure he had, and provided some insight into how he might use his roster this season.
Prior to listening to Noel, I opened the Winnipeg Sun’s training camp coverage on Day One to a giant banner of Claude Noel holding his glasses menacingly with the all-caps text "TIME TO GET TOUGHER" in the corner. It’s a believable mantra for a team moving West that let Antropov, Wellwood, and Hainsey walk away despite limited depth. But as the tallest and 4th heaviest team to start the lockout-shortened 2013 season, and given the heaps of analytical evidence that toughness is not indicative of wins (some data on hits and fights), it scared me. So off to Noel’s presser I went, underwear in a twist as they say.
At the 15 minute mark, Noel is given a t-ball setup on a classic hockey trope. All he has to say is ‘yeah, the West is tough and we’re going to be tough too.’ But he doesn’t. The transcript:
Q: "It sounds like you wanted a tougher, more rugged team. Would that be fair?"
Claude Noel after a deep inhale,
"I’d like a team that’s tough to play against. And I think… well… meaning a lot of different things. You know, we’ve got good speed on our team and I’d like to use that speed to take away time and space. We’ve got size on our team, I’d like to use that as well. Um, does that lend itself to physicality? I would think that it would. You know, so that’s something that when you become a hard team to play against, you make the other team earn every inch of ice towards your net. That’s something that we’re looking for."
Q: (very hard to hear, best guess) "Do you think the same players will [hit?/give?] more? Or do you think you’ve added players that will provide that?"
"No, I would like our team just to play hard and to be responsible. And to make sure we’re doing the right things to win games."
What does it mean?
For one, it means the Winnipeg Sun was just editorializing, and Roland Barthes would chorttle at their use of the coach’s image to create a false association for their readers. (A biting remark once they figure out who Roland Barthes is, I assure you.)
More importantly, it means we may be witnessing a genuine ‘Turn to Skill,’ starting with a draft that put talent ahead of role players in collecting a (so far) impressive crop of youth. Back in August we used Travis Yost’s work to show that Claude Noel does not use shot differential in managing his lineup. In all likelihood, he hasn’t become a proponent of advanced stats over the summer. At the same time, being tough to play against by way of speed, being responsible, and yes, being sizeable speaks to thinking about hockey as a game of territory and possession, as opposed to a game of psychology and punishment. A team can be brutalizing to play against, too, and try to change the decision making of the opposition through fear and intimidation. It may seem like a small point, but Claude Noel chose the former over the latter, even when prompted to go along with the easily sold narrative of big and tough.
Anthony Peluso and Chris Thorburn – bubble players with little need for gloves – are the most obvious litmus test for any new team direction toward skill. For me, I’ll be watching how Noel deploys James Wright, a favourite of the coach last year despite a team-worst corsi percentage just over 44 (meaning just 44.3% of the shot attempts taken while he was on the ice were for the good guys – more than 2% worse than fan whipping-boy Antti Miettinen). He has the physical skills mentioned by Noel – good straight ahead speed and a 6’3" frame – but it’s hard to argue the 23 year old waiver pick up on his third NHL franchise does the right things to win. If Claude Noel is serious about process leading to results, about tighter checking to improve goal differential, about using speed and size to take away time and space, we’ll see it in Wright’s minutes.