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Analysis: Goal prevention led to Noel's downfall

by Corey Masisak

When the Atlanta Thrashers became the Winnipeg Jets, the franchise came to Manitoba with a collection of young, offensively gifted players and a penchant for yielding far too many goals to be a successful NHL team.

When Claude Noel was hired as the first coach of the Jets version 2.0, one of his objectives had to be to help these young players keep the puck out of their own net. Two-and-a-half seasons into Noel's tenure, goal prevention remained the greatest roadblock to the franchise's success, and it is the reason for the end of his time as Winnipeg's coach.

The Jets have allowed 141 goals in 47 games this season, which puts them tied for 25th in the League in goals against per contest. Winnipeg was tied for 24th at 2.94 goals per game last season and 26th at 2.95 per contest two seasons ago.

This is a problem that predates Noel, of course, but one he was unable to correct. The Thrashers hadn't finished above 25th in the League in goals against before they moved since 2006-07, which not coincidentally was the franchise's only appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs to date.

Even in that season, the Thrashers still allowed 2.94 goals per game, but that was a high-scoring year and it was good enough to finish 15th in the League in that category. The team has finished 24th or worse in goals against in every other season in the franchise's existence.

Offense has not been a major problem for the Jets, though depth scoring has been an issue at times during the first three seasons. The additions of Michael Frolik and Devin Setoguchi, and the development of Mark Scheifele, have helped, though the Jets are scoring exactly the same (2.62 goals per game) in 2013-14 as they did last season.

With Blake Wheeler, Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Evander Kane up front, and Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom on the blue line, the Jets finished 12th in the League in goals per game in their first season in Winnipeg, 16th last year and are again 16th in 2013-14.

A team with better defense and goaltending can succeed as a mid-pack offensive club, but one with the issues in its own end that Winnipeg has had is doomed to fail.

Enter Paul Maurice, who becomes the next coach to try to instill commitment to defense for the Jets. One thing Maurice definitely has is more NHL experience than Noel, who had just 24 games as an NHL head coach on his resume before taking the Jets job.

Maurice has coached nearly 1,100 games at the NHL level. He's taken a team to the Stanley Cup Final and a team to the conference finals.

His resume has a mixed defensive record. The Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes finished in the top third of the League in goals against twice and middle of the pack four other times in his 13 seasons with the organization. His two years with the Toronto Maple Leafs were not as good defensively as the team finished in the bottom-third in goals allowed, but he also had Andrew Raycroft and Vesa Toskala in net.

Maurice will try to instill better defensive discipline in his players. Are the players in Winnipeg the right ones for such a task?

General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has locked up the core of the team, with eight players boasting contracts that run through at least 2015-16 and cost at least $3.9 million against the salary cap. Scheifele and young defenseman Jacob Trouba could make big improvements, but otherwise that group of eight guys is either going to have to play better or be changed.

One of those eight is goaltender Ondrej Pavalec, who is in his fourth season as the franchise's No. 1 goaltender. His first year as the unquestioned No. 1 was his best, with a .914 save percentage and 2.73 goals-against average.

In the past three campaigns, Pavalec's save percentage has slipped to .906, .905 and now .898 this season. He led the League in goals allowed in each of the past two seasons and is atop that "leaderboard" again in 2013-14.

This franchise let Kari Lehtonen go after four seasons with him as the starter that were filled with injuries and inconsistency, but he did get them into the playoffs in 2006-07 and he posted a save percentage of at least .911 in three of those years. He's been able to stay healthier for the Dallas Stars, and is working on a fourth straight season of solid or better work in net for that franchise.

Is Pavelec the answer in net for the Jets? His defenders have pointed to the team's defensive issues in front of him, which has been a valid criticism of the team. Maurice might be able to remove that excuse, and if so the focus is on Pavelec to prove he can be a viable goaltender for a playoff team in this League.

And so the Paul Maurice era in Winnipeg begins much in the same way Noel's did. The mandate is pretty simple: Find a way to keep the puck out of the team's net more often than it has for the entire history of the franchise.

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