WINNIPEG – After missing the playoffs in each of the first two seasons after moving from Atlanta, the Winnipeg Jets expected to be on course for a postseason berth in 2013-14.
An inconsistent start to the season and a recent slump has left the Jets far from the playoff picture, so it was time for a big change. The Jets fired coach Claude Noel and replaced him with Paul Maurice, the team announced Sunday.
Assistant coach Perry Pearn was also let go. Assistant coaches Charlie Huddy and Pascal Vincent, goaltending coach Wade Flaherty and video coach Tony Borgford remain on the Jets' coaching staff.
The Jets have lost five straight games, are 19-23-5 and in last place in the Central Division.
"It's certainly a very difficult day for [Noel and Pearn]," general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said at MTS Centre on Sunday. "I appreciate all the hard work and effort."
Cheveldayoff met with Noel and Pearn on Sunday morning before meeting with his players. According to Cheveldayoff, he initiated contact with Maurice to gauge his interest this past Tuesday after a 4-2 home loss against the Tampa Bay Lightning in which the Jets managed 14 shots.
Maurice, whom Cheveldayoff knows via "mutual acquaintances," will arrive in Winnipeg on Sunday night and conduct his first morning skate before the Jets' home game against the Phoenix Coyotes. Maurice will serve as Jets coach through the end of the 2013-14 season, but Cheveldayoff indicated that both parties will discuss their plans beyond this season soon.
"We don't have [an agreement] on paper," Cheveldayoff said. "We have a handshake over the phone."
But getting Maurice behind the Jets' bench as quickly as possible and beginning the team's overhaul was crucial for Cheveldayoff.
"The task at hand is something we all wanted to get at very quickly," Cheveldayoff said.
Maurice, 46, has more than 1,000 games of NHL coaching experience with the Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes and Toronto Maple Leafs, and he led the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup Final in 2002 and then to the Eastern Conference Final in 2009 during a second stint with the organization.
Maurice most recently coached Metallurg Magnitogorsk of the Kontinental Hockey League, guiding that team to a 27-13-12 record during the 2012-13 season.
"[Maurice] has coached a lot of different types of teams," Cheveldayoff said. "He has had experience with both veteran players and young players, and has had success with both. He has experienced success; he has experienced failure. He's battle-hardened, and he is energetic and chomping at the bit to get back into the NHL."
In doing his background checks on Maurice across the hockey world, Cheveldayoff said he emerged with a consensus report on his new hire.
"There was one common theme of extremely professional, extremely prepared, extremely knowledgeable about the game, and a guy that is very direct and one-on-one with his people and his players," Cheveldayoff said. "[Maurice] does carry himself very well and does have the confidence of someone with [1,084] games at the [NHL] level."
The Jets named Noel their coach when the organization moved to Winnipeg from Atlanta. He had 24 games of NHL head coaching experience before that appointment as an interim boss for the Columbus Blue Jackets at the end of the 2009-10 campaign.
Noel spent the 2010-11 season as coach of the Manitoba Moose in the American Hockey League. The Moose were the Vancouver Canucks' American Hockey League affiliate, but the team played in MTS Centre and was owned by True North Sports and Entertainment, the group that eventually brought the Jets to the city.
The Jets failed to make the playoffs in Noel's first two seasons. Cheveldayoff continued to lock up the core of the team this past summer, and the Jets have eight players signed through at least the 2015-16 season that count at least $3.9 million against the salary cap.
But this season the Jets have hovered near the .500 mark until the recent skid. The high-water mark to this point was Nov. 15, when a third straight shootout win pushed Winnipeg's record to 10-9-2.
Goal prevention has long been an issue for the franchise even dating back to its days in Atlanta, and Noel was never able to correct that problem. The Jets are tied for 25th in the League in goals against at 3.00 per contest this season. The franchise hasn't finished above tied for 24th in that category since its only Stanley Cup Playoff appearance in 2007.
Desperate to snap the Jets out of their funk, Noel shuffled all four of his forward lines before the team's game Saturday night against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The headline move was Dustin Byfuglien, the team's top defenseman, going to the wing on the first line. Columbus defeated the Jets 6-3 in what proved to be Noel's final game.
Did Cheveldayoff provide Noel with enough help?
"If I'm being honest, I would say no," Cheveldayoff said.
Though the Jets have struggled lately in their tumble to the bottom of the Central Division, Cheveldayoff said their five-game losing streak was not the only factor that went into his decision to replace Noel.
"It really wasn't one single thing," Cheveldayoff said. "I think collectively over a period of time there was certainly levels of expectations that we had collectively for our group of players and individually for our players. It just became apparent over the last little while here that things were not trending in the right direction and that we were going to have to do something to try to and move things back into a fashion of moving forward."
Cheveldayoff also recounted the meeting with his players.
"We talked about the life of being in professional sports and the accountability and levels that people are held to in those regards," he said.
It is possible that Maurice will only be the first in a series of moves for the Jets, who have not progressed as Cheveldayoff had expected. Noel and his players stated that contending for a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs was a goal for this season.
So, Cheveldayoff will also be counting on Maurice to provide a critical and detached look at a franchise that has not reached the playoffs in nearly seven years.
"I believe that having Paul coaching our group is going to help push us, and I mean us as [in] our management staff as well," Cheveldayoff explained. "There are going to be some outside eyes coming in critically evaluating our roster, and that's going to help us make decisions moving forward."
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