Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Jets' long-term planning means Noel is here to stay

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The question one must ask to evaluate Claude Noel's performance and growth as a coach comes down to whether the Winnipeg Jets are overachieving or underachieving.

That determination will tell you what you need to know about Noel and the job he's doing behind the Jets bench. The path to this answer is through his players.

How one views the Jets roster -- do they have enough quality NHLers to be a playoff team? -- will lead to the conclusion on Noel's results to date.

The answer for me comes down to one player. Andrew Ladd. He's been the Jets' best and most consistent player since Noel took over as coach. I love Andrew Ladd as a player and a captain but if he's your very best, and there is clear evidence to support that, you're not good enough.

Maybe if the Jets had 10 players of Ladd's ability and commitment, an argument could be made for this roster as a playoff contender but the drop off after Ladd is substantial.

The Jets have a handful of players who offer consistent excellence. They have far more players who are either a work in progress or need to be replaced.

This team finished 25th in the league in its last year in Atlanta and the core hasn't perceptibly changed since coming north. Fourteen of Winnipeg's current regulars all flew under the Thrashers flag.

Noel has this group playing far better than it ever did in Atlanta. Last season they finished 22nd and if the season ended today they would be 19th. Progress is being made.

The Jets have talent. But talent has different stages and doesn't equate to complete players.

Evander Kane has nights where he's the best player on the ice but he still has stretches where he disappears. Same goes for Blake Wheeler. These two could be difference makers but they're not there yet. Bryan Little has proven to be a very useful player as well and he's added consistency in all three zones to his game this year.

After that, what does Noel have to work with in his forward corps? A group of players that will likely never provide impact.

Jim Slater and James Wright are solid checkers but they bring no offence. Olli Jokinen has yet to regain the speed the lockout robbed from his 34-year-old legs.

The rest really aren't worth mentioning. There's a glimmer here and there but there's no one that could be termed as indispensable.

The Jets have no depth. There's a few good players at the top and then a whole bunch of borderline players. It makes it almost impossible to have expectations for success in the NHL.

The only way to change this is to draft good players, develop them and keep them. Not one player GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has drafted has become a regular with the Jets. Enough time simply hasn't passed.

The blue-line is a little better. Two players can be labelled as top end. There's also a couple in the middle and a bunch at this stage in their careers that can be viewed as take it or leave it. Toby Enstrom is hurt and out of the conversation. That leaves Dustin Byfuglien and Zach Bogosian above the line. Mark Stuart and Ron Hainsey are OK players but both have considerable flaws.

The rest have work to do to even be considered NHL regulars.

Noel's biggest strength right now is his goaltending. Ondrej Pavelec and Al Montoya are both in a groove and they've allowed the Jets to stick around the playoff line.

But take their good play out of the equation and this team is near the cellar.

To call the Jets overachievers right now would be a stretch. But the roster as it is currently constituted is weak. Winnipeg is likely right where it should be in the standings and that's a bubble team.

Some will make the argument it's Noel's job to get the best out of his players. They're right. But like the roster, Noel's work requires patience. And patience this organization will exercise.

Rest assured, Noel isn't going anywhere. The management group uses the Nashviille Predators model more often than any other when discussing long-range plans.

GM David Poile and head coach Barry Trotz have held their positions since 1998. While it's far too early to predict the same for Cheveldayoff and Noel, it is a surety that is what Jets owner Mark Chipman would like to see unfold.

Noel comes under Cheveldayoff's purview, however, and the GM will tip his hand to a certain degree this summer. Noel is in the second year of a three-year contract and an extension may or may not be offered.

Most NHL organizations prefer not to have their coaches working in the last year of a deal. It doesn't send a message of strength to the dressing room.

Noel isn't perfect. No coach is. But he's diligent, passionate and understands the vision.

Would Cheveldayoff and Chipman like their team to win more games? Of course. So would Noel. But they, more than anyone, know what they have to work with right now. It's not enough.

This isn't a fantasy league where a GM can wave a wand and rebuild his roster overnight. It takes time.

Noel is caught in the middle and has to take the bullets. His job is to continue to work with the players he's inherited and try to build a culture of accountability, develop youth and also try to win games.

How has he done so far? It's impossible to judge. His work is long-term and the plan is still in the infancy stages.

Noel will need to be judged and that day will come. It just hasn't arrived yet and won't for some time.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 12, 2013 D3

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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