Sitting well out of playoff contention heading into the second half of the 2013-14 season, the clock might be winding down on Claude Noel’s time as head coach of the Winnipeg Jets. The Jets continue to flirt with a winning record under Noel’s coaching, but have failed to turn the corner and shed the reputation for mediocrity that has hung over the franchise since its inception as the Atlanta Thrashers.
Through 42 games this season, the Jets have 43 points and a record of 19-21-5. They sit one point ahead of the Central Division’s basement-dwelling Nashville Predators, and seven points back from a Western Conference wild card spot. The Jets are going to require a strong January, with 15 games remaining before the NHL takes a break for the Sochi Olympics.
The Jets have talented veterans like Bryan Little, who leads the team in points and is on pace to have a career year; Blake Wheeler, who will play for Team USA at the Olympics; Dustin Byfuglien; and Zach Bogosian. They also have promising young talent like Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba, who have the potential to be the future leaders of the Jets franchise.
Unfortunately, the division realignment that moved the Jets from the Southeast Division to the Central has exposed the Jets as playoff pretenders. While it was exciting to watch the Jets jockey for the lowly Southeast Division crown, with Chicago, St. Louis, and Colorado set for many years of successful seasons to come, the Jets will have to make a big move to make up ground on the division leaders. Part of that will come through the draft, but more importantly through smart player development and game planning by the coaching staff.
Remember Alexander Burmistrov? The Russian centre was drafted eighth overall by the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, and pushed into the starting lineup the following season. Instead of taking an extra year or two to develop in the minor leagues, Burmistrov fizzled out in the NHL and now plays in the KHL.
I bring up Burmistrov as an example of how decisions made by coaches and management can contribute to the stunted growth of a young player’s development. So far, the team has given other prospects the time to develop and grow before transitioning them into the pros, and Noel has given Scheifele and Trouba plenty of ice time. With his AHL coaching background, player development should be one of Noel’s strengths.
The question Jets fans should be asking themselves is whether Noel has done enough to keep his job secure. You have to wonder whether Noel would have ever been in the conversation for the Jets’ head coach position if he weren’t already working for True North as the head coach of the Manitoba Moose. True North gave Noel the nod, and hasn’t had much success to show for the decision through two seasons in the NHL.
The grace period for Claude Noel has long ended. The fantasy of raising a Southeast Division banner to the MTS Centre rafters never materialized. The Jets have a month before the hockey world turns their attention to Sochi. The reality is that unless something changes in Winnipeg, making the playoffs in the wild Western Conference will just be another unrealized fantasy for Jets fans.