Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

This is NOT an easy fix

After Tuesday's stinker in Florida, what does Claude Noel do to motivate his underperforming squad?

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TAMPA, Fla. -- There's a reason the Winnipeg Jets surge up to .500 and then revert into a bad hockey team. It's a lack of leadership.

This isn't an indictment of Andrew Ladd. He's a very capable player and a solid captain. But he can't drive the Jets alone and it's clear he's not getting the support he needs from the rest of the players on the team.

Leadership must come from every corner of the room. From the young to the veteran. The Jets must make themselves accountable to one another and until they do, they'll never amount to anything.

Tuesday's 4-1 loss to the Florida Panthers saw the Jets come out flat and never muster a response. There was no internal drive from the players in the locker-room to change their performance. They wilted. They played soft. They did none of the things professionals do when they're on the clock.

"If I'm sitting there as a player, and I've been a player, at the end of that game it has to be disturbing. But not only at the end of the game -- what about after the first period?" said Noel Wednesday morning. "I was a captain or an assistant captain pretty much my whole career and I would have had a hard time measuring up after that game or after 20 minutes and saying very little or not be smoking if I was a player."

One might ask the question why didn't Noel get his players' attention and force a change mid-game? Or why didn't he have them breathing fire to start the game?

Talk to players around the NHL or in any pro sport and they'll tell you they alone determine the amount of effort they expend. Rah-rah speeches are for high school and the movies. Millionaires don't shake as easily.

"The disturbing part is do we have some satisfaction that we feel like we're doing well and it's going to come easy? Is it the lack of winning maturity in the group? Where's our emotional level when it comes to our leadership? I'm not pointing fingers at one person, I'm talking about our leadership group," said Noel. "You have to help them so we can get by and get our foot on someone's throat and keep stepping because that's the difference between winning and losing and winning with a fair amount of consistency."

Coaches can hold players accountable by limiting their playing time if they're not up to the expected standard but Noel is in a fix in this regard. The greatest carrot in the NHL is ice time. Take it away from a player and you restrict his ability to build a statistical resumé and showcase his abilities and insure the next payday. But if a team or an organization doesn't have depth -- and the Jets are woefully short in this capacity -- it makes the threat hollow.

Noel can't bench any of his top six forwards for any real length of time. Who is going to step up? There's no push from the bottom of the lineup. No one is threatening to take work from the top six. The same goes on the blue-line. The Jets already have two regulars, Toby Enstrom and Zach Redmond, out of the lineup due to injury. There's no one in St. John's ready for NHL work. Noel can pretend to wield the stick but his players know he doesn't. So he must attempt to cajole results from them in other ways.

Stepping back and throwing up his hands isn't an option for Noel. He's got to believe his group can achieve more and continually look for solutions. On Wednesday, however, there were none forthcoming and the coach was in a dark mood.

Still, he refused to relent and promised to continue pushing.

"I think we're good enough," he said. "You can argue but you won't convince me. When we play like we can, you can see what we can do. It's no different than Florida. They have less but they play together and have more. When we go into Jersey and New York and play like we can, we prove that we're able. That's the team that I know. I could say we don't have enough, but that's poor. That's excuses and we know what excuses are for. We have enough. That's what I have to get across to our team and it's not like it hasn't been spoken about. But we have to get it to another level. It has to go deeper than that. That's what you do as a coach. You have to find the buttons to keep going. Why do we have this area where it looks like we're satisfied? It certainly doesn't come from me."

Apologists will say the Jets are young, but that's beginning to sound tired. The core has been together for three years or more and they've had the opportunity to grow together.

"You take steps back but how many steps do you want to keep taking because that's the hard part of growth," said Noel. "It's easy to say you learn from your mistakes but when it happens two or three times, are we learning? Those are empty words."

School should have been out some time ago. Certainly we're into exam time now and, unless there's a change, another big, fat F is coming down the pipe. Twitter: @garylawless

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 7, 2013 D1

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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
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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