Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

If Noel's the guy, Jets need to say so

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Bringing Claude Noel back to coach the Winnipeg Jets this season without a contract extension won't work. Either give him another year or do the humane thing and fire him.

Putting Noel back behind the bench in the final year of his three-year contract is an invitation to disaster -- especially with this group of players.

The Jets, as they are currently constructed, have yet to show they are consistently willing to do the things needed to win. They go in and out and the result is uneven play. They need to stay on task, as Noel likes to say, but he'll need the hammer to make that happen.

Coaches in the last year of a contract are always in danger of being tuned out and it's not unfair to imagine this group doing just that to Noel the first time they hit a skid.

The Jets are only effective when they play the way Noel wants, but it's hard work that drives his scheme. Physical and mental efforts requiring daily commitment. This group hasn't shown the willingness to provide this mindset each and every day.

Some days they do and some days they don't. A coach without the appearance of management's backing only gives them an easy excuse or way out at the first sign of heavy lifting.

The Jets do not have playoff personnel and Noel has gotten them close. With the players he's been given, the middling results the team has achieved must have been expected.

Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has been clear about his plan and that's to draft and develop. He's building his organization from the ground up. He's stressed patience, stockpiled draft picks and made no dramatic signings.

This will be just the third year of Cheveldayoff's reign and the Jets are in a far better position today than when he took over. The organization is poised to re-start this summer with fresh talent coming onstream and some onerous contracts finally set to expire. To this point, however, the GM hasn't indicated what the future holds for Noel.

Cheveldayoff has been unwavering in his refusal to trade the future for quick fixes in the present.

Most of Winnipeg's young core has improved under Noel's leadership and appear poised to now become consistently effective NHLers.

Andrew Ladd has flourished. Evander Kane, Bryan Little, Zach Bogosian and Blake Wheeler have all continued to improve under Noel.

Dustin Byfuglien's game has flattened out and young Alex Burmistrov can't get engaged under Noel. Those are challenges the coach will need to tackle if he's back.

Getting Byfuglien to commit to an off-ice conditioning regime that will allow him to be a consistent performer and solving his fractious relationship with Burmistrov would have to be among Noel's top priorities. It's been clear watching the post-season that had the Jets made it to the tournament, they would have been woefully under-armed.

They're not deep enough, Ondrej Pavelec's goaltending is not yet at the level we've been seeing and the Jets have not to this point shown the emotional strength required for this brand of hockey.

Playoff teams must be mentally impervious and their psyches impenetrable.

As a team, the Jets are still soft and easily knocked off plan. We've seen it again and again. They go strong for a few games and then slip back, resulting in last season's decidedly mediocre 24-21-3 record.

Does Noel bear some of the responsibility for this? Certainly. But he hasn't been properly equipped to succeed thus far and to pretend so is disingenuous.

Putting a $500,000-a-year coach in a room with every player making more money -- and some as much as ten times more per season -- is a difficult enough assignment. Leaving him unarmed without any security is like slapping meat cologne on him and throwing him in a cage with a pride of lions. They'll tear him apart.

If Noel is indeed the coach to begin the season, he'll need an extension. Even if Cheveldayoff is unsure how long the marriage will last, he must give his coach the footing needed to succeed.

The money is next to immaterial. So what if the Jets decide to go a different direction with time and money left on the books. True North can absorb the hit. It's part of the cost of doing business in the NHL.

Noel's record may not merit a multi-year package but tacking another year on to the current deal gives him the required stability and Cheveldayoff a little more time to evaluate.

If Noel is staying, he needs security to carry out the job he's being asked to do. Anything less would be uncivilized and counterproductive.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 29, 2013 C1

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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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