Which old witch? The Wicked Witch!
After a very poor 6-3 loss against the Blue Jackets extended the Jets’ skid to 5 games, Kevin Cheveldayoff took action behind the Jets bench. Claude Noel, the first coach in the Jets 2.0 history, was fired along with career Assistant Perry Pearn.
We knew as a fan base that this was coming, and certainly the organization has tipped its hand that this was in the works. Paul Maurice is stepping into the vacant position, revealing that Cheveldayoff was in communication with the former TSN Analyst prior to Sunday morning.
Inside we’ll review some of what led to Noel’s dismissal and what we can expect in broad strokes from Paul Maurice.
Breaking Up Is Hard To Do
I’ve long written that the first solution on this team was to replace this coach. After three years of mediocre hockey and the elevator shaft the team has stepped into upon joining the West, the GM is facing major roster decisions. When I compared the Jets to the 2009 Oilers, I warned against moving large pieces of the roster on the advice of the coach you know is on his way out. Facing major decisions, Cheveldayoff did the right thing to bring in a coach with a different style so he can see which problems were players and which were the coach.
The question remains, was it soon enough?
The Jets have suffered a constellation of problems under Noel. We talked about the case of James Wright last season, where he was given strong preference for the third line assignment over Ponikarovsky (traded) and Tangradi (better results). It was in the context of Travis Yost’s work regarding corsi by line, and I showed that in the Jets’ case, the optimal lineup Yost used wasn’t the one the coach used.
From the surface, that’s the most obvious of his faults, in fact. In yesterday’s pre-game I noted that Noel doesn’t fill out a lineup card without some sort of experiment. We’ve been waiting three years for the common sense lineup, and instead we’ve had Wellwood on the third line and Miettinen on the second. We’ve had Thorburn on his off-wing in the top-9, and Ron Hainsey played as a shutdown man with a young defender as his partner. Kane almost skated his way out of town thanks to constant pairing with free agent flop Olli Jokinen, who our own Travis Hrubeniuk showed is the only centre Kane plays poorly with. When Olli Jokinen was struggling through the worst season of his career, the coach put him out more and health scratched Alex Burmistrov for similar offensive output with better process results in way fewer and harder minutes.
Which brings us to the conflicts. Burmistrov was the most public, as he fired back at the organization from Russia by saying it was his ice time and Noel that made him leave. Back in August, I wrote that he was right.
Putting our Canadian-hockey-is-the-best-hockey egos aside, the reality is that the team gave an exceptional young player limited opportunity to establish his offence as a teenager in the NHL, watched him emerge as possibly the best or second best possession player on the team in year 3, and then allowed him to walk away so a veteran free agent fill-in could play his way out of a slump while the team missed the playoffs for the 6th season in a row.
The coach did that. We’ve heard public spats with Kane (the team’s best young player), and Byfuglien certainly didn’t seem happy about the move to forward last game. After a 47 point season for Wellwood, the coach buried him on a bad lineup and didn’t put him out to help the league’s worst powerplay last season. With Halischuk and Thorburn and Wright playing in the top-9 this year, Wellwood, Burmistrov, or Mike Santorelli (who came in on waivers, tore it up with Burmi and then was allowed to walk) would all look pretty good on this roster.
Noel has a type of player he likes, and he seems to treat those players well. But his lineups have pettiness in them, experiments, and lessons for his players at a level of hockey where that stuff has no place.
Speaking of being an NHL coach, Claude Noel doesn’t fit the bill. His lack of line matching in the West was a problem this year, and meant one line was always being beaten on a shallow club. His systems have evolved since the start of the season, but from Anaheim on October 6th to Chicago on November 1st, when the team went 3-8-2 with one regulation win, it seemed like this coach had no idea how to organize a hockey club at this level. In particular, their failure started from a 2-1-2 stack forecheck that just isn’t used in the NHL. It’s aggressive, which fits the Jets’ size, but meant the team was constantly defending 3 and 4 on 2’s with no back pressure. Forwards never did any defensive work because they were never in the play.
At the same time, last season’s NHL worst powerplay had stretched into this season despite a new look and Claude Noel assuring us that Pascal Vincent would be able to focus on that task. The centre-post umbrella was rigid and the team had no re-group areas planned. If the shot from the point didn’t work, then it was back to their own end to try another set up (or take the puck out of the net). Again, it’s evolved. We saw the team work at attacking from below the goal line, and now it seems like they have a corner re-group and options to run the play from low in the zone or up high. But it’s still not good.
Defensively, the Jets have moved from a swarm attack a year ago to a passive man defence this year. Essentially they wait for the play to come to them, and even though a more defensively minded forecheck with a high third forward means they get back pressure through the neutral zone, several of their defenders simply retreat from the blue line anyway.
In all areas of the ice, the spread is the problem. There’s no puck support as everyone just skates away with no re-groups or lateral movement. There’s no defensive lane support. Every player is forced to play an individual game at a level of hockey where that’s a disaster. The success of the LLW line has been to ignore that and play a very different way than the rest of the team. The success of Enstrom and Byfuglien and Evander Kane has been to be have enough individual talent to overcome it – at least in the East. The success of the rest of the team has been inconsistent or negligible.
Claude Noel simply wasn’t up to the task of managing an NHL hockey club, from their x’s and o’s to talent evaluation to motivation. He failed in every regard, and the team’s limited success came in spite of him.
What About Pearn?
We’ll cover Perry Pearn in the coming days, but I think it’s a mistake to have singled out that coach. We never know what happens behind closed doors. Perhaps Pearn and Noel refused to listen to other ideas, or was Noel’s "guy." Still, the only functional (and discreet) part of this club has been the penalty kill (currently 12th overall), which led the NHL is corsi % for last season (ie. was the most aggressive and got the most shots against powerplays). That’s Pearn’s job by all accounts, and I’ve enjoyed his systems work.
Meanwhile, Pascal Vincent (PP coach and in-game adjustments), Charlie Huddy (Defense coach) and Wade Flaherty (Goalie coach) all remain for now. It’s not often assistants stay on with a new head coach in these situations, but Pearn was singled out from the assistant group and it’s strange to me that it was him. The team almost always loses second periods when they do well in the first, and their powerplay is poor. Sure seems like Vincent shoulders more blame here.
(As an aside, I’ve said before that I think Charlie Huddy saved Bogosian’s career, and I quite like him as a defence coach. Hope he stays.)
You Say Goodbye, While I Say Hello
Paul Maurice is the new man behind the bench. He started in Hartford as a 28 year old, and moved with the team to Carolina. He was the youngest coach to reach 1,000 games (at 43), and he lost in the Cup finals in 01/02. His resume is long, but not varied, and more worrisome is that it’s not particularly full of success, either.
In his defence, Hartford/Carolina and Toronto (his only two employers in the NHL) are not particularly good teams over the 15 year span of his career. Still, his personal career best in wins is 40, set with the Leafs and his career best in points is 91 (three times), which is lower than the expected threshold to gain a playoff berth in the West. All four of his playoff appearances in 15 years came from the Southeast Division, arguably the easiest and least structured Division in the league.
It’s not the stuff of legend. He might not even be the best unemployed NHL coach at the moment, given Laviolette’s in-season firing.
That said, the locker room he enters is full of skill, size, and grit and has been mismanaged for three seasons. His job will be easier than most. Line matching, tighter formations attacking and defending, and a better powerplay will make the Jets look like a different hockey club. They continue to have a challenge in net and with the end of their roster, but we can hope that fresh eyes will give Cheveldayoff the insight necessary to make a bold move in those areas this off-season.
We’ll look back through Maurice’s coaching habits over the coming week. For now, fans can breathe with relief. The Jets have avoided an Oilers 2009 scenario and taken a step in the direction of competing. The heart of their roster remains in tact, and Cheveldayoff has given himself 4 weeks and 13 contests to evaluate the roster under a new coach before the Olympic freeze. This could be the start of an era of common sense for this team, and that might be enough for a playoff berth come 2015.