No one but GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and members of his inner circle know how the Winnipeg Jets feel about their coach Claude Noel right now. But if Alain Vigneault finds himself on the street in the coming days, the mystery may end.
Cheveldayoff needs to determine whether Noel has overachieved with a subpar roster or held back his team with poor coaching. At this point, the answer is not clearly evident.
But if the Vancouver Canucks do what many think they will and fire Vigneault, keep an eye on Cheveldayoff to see if he makes a play.
Under normal circumstances, one would expect the Jets organization to exercise patience with Noel and let time reveal his exact worth. But if the Canucks -- ousted from the Stanley Cup playoffs in the first round for the second straight season -- get twitchy and fire this established and tremendously successful coach, Cheveldayoff will at the very least have to consider taking a run at Vigneault.
Cheveldayoff was asked at season's end if Noel would be back running the Jets and he would not say yes.
"The answer is, that everybody that is under contract is under contract," said Cheveldayoff. "It's one of those things when you talk about a coach at this point in time, if I say something one way or say something the other way, it's always misconstrued. There should be no interjection or expectation that Claude Noel is not the coach. The question then leads to, 'Well, then you must be signing him to an extension.' There's a process in place to deal with these things.
"It's a question that has to be asked. Claude Noel is the coach of the Winnipeg Jets. He is under contract and as we move forward the processes will unfold."
Cheveldayoff could easily have said he wanted Noel back. The extension question could have been handled by saying it hadn't been discussed yet. But Cheveldayoff, for his own reasons, left the door open. Maybe he doesn't want to tip his hand prior to negotiations. Maybe he wants to bring Noel back on a short leash. Or maybe he wants to replace him.
The only thing known for certain is that when given a chance to say his coach would be back, Cheveldayoff demurred.
Noel was hired to coach a hockey team with a group of core players that had never made the playoffs together. They still haven't. The core has not dramatically changed. In fact, Cheveldayoff subtracted from the roster to collect draft picks at the 2012 trade deadline, and at the same juncture in 2013, did nothing.
All moves of a GM who has repeatedly stressed the need for patience while he restocks the organization's player pool.
The coach could make the argument the GM has done little to help him, that he's been doing his job, patiently waiting for the program to kick in and supply him with a roster both talented and deep.
The Jets were woefully shallow at forward this season and the blue-line featured a lot of youth. In the end, the Jets were a middling roster, achieving similar results.
It's true Noel hasn't had a lot to work with but one might also argue he hasn't been able to get this group to take the next step. It's all perspective and Cheveldayoff's on the matter is both unknown and all powerful.
Noel has coached the Jets to a 61-56-13 record over two seasons and missed the playoffs both times. To say he's had a fair shake would be inaccurate but pro sport isn't about what is fair. If Cheveldayoff has come to the conclusion Noel isn't the coach to lead the Jets and someone he feels better suited for the job is available and attainable, he'll make the change.
Kill or be killed is the law of the jungle.
Noel had to supervise the transfer of a franchise from Atlanta to Winnipeg, hire a coaching staff, put a program in place and become familiar with an entire organizational roster in his first season. This season's labour dispute robbed him of a training camp. No question, there have been plenty of cards stacked against Noel in his first full-time NHL head coaching position.
Has he proven himself to be a successful NHL head coach? Not really, says the record. Has he been given the tools and opportunity to make that case? Again, not really.
Vigneault -- and there is no guarantee (should he be fired) Winnipeg would be able to secure his services-- is an elite NHL head coach.
Two Presidents' Trophies, a Jack Adams Trophy, six Northwest Division banners and Game 7 of a Stanley Cup final are all on Vigneault's resum©. Many NHL teams would want him as their head coach.
Vigneault did all this with a superior roster. Could Noel have matched his results with those same players? Good question but the answer is elusive. Noel doesn't have the NHL track record to lead to a conclusion one way or another.
If Cheveldayoff could land Vigneault, who will cost around $2 million per year and want as much as a five-year deal, it would be difficult to argue against the move.
But it would also fly against everything the Jets have said they stand for in terms of patience and development.
Perhaps the lure of landing a fish as big as Vigneault could move the Jets off their organizational principles. Cheveldayoff, if he is unsure of Noel's future with the organization, might determine he can't pass on the opportunity to hire a coach like Vigneault while waiting to find out if Noel is indeed the right man.
Asked to bet, I'd have to put my money on Claude Noel being back and likely given a one-year extension. With what he's had to work with and the circumstances surrounding the situation, he deserves more time.
But deserve and fair aren't in the pro sports dictionary.
So no one should be surprised, given the opportunity to bring in a known quantity, if Cheveldayoff pulls the trigger.
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