Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

New task ahead for team

Getting into playoff position is one thing... staying there another

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So the Winnipeg Jets got themselves into a playoff position on Tuesday night and almost immediately after the game, coach Claude Noel was talking about the next challenge for his club -- staying above the line.

The line Noel speaks of can be plainly seen in the standings below the eighth-place team in the conference. For the Jets, who own a 17-14-5 record heading into tonight's action with the Los Angeles Kings, getting above that line in the Eastern Conference standings took a long time.

Last season, the Atlanta Thrashers spent more than half the campaign above the line before fading down the stretch. Noel doesn't want to see history repeated.

"There's a maturing process that's taking place with this team in the room, and (last year) is something that I really can't comment too much on. I wasn't (in Atlanta).

"But I think the players recognize that the way that they played last year and how they went and how they played the second half, they certainly learned from the way that that season closed out last year," said Noel.

"Our room is very focused and very strong and it's very well led. They're building off those things. Right now we're playing with some confidence from our goaltender out and it's helping us whether we're at home or on the road. We just have to continue down this road."

Are the Jets any different than last year? It would be great to be able to offer up a definitive yes. But until they've proven themselves, judgement will be reserved. But there are a number of clues that suggest this team is sturdier than the one that folded down the stretch last season:

 

1. Coaching -- Noel might be the biggest difference from last season. Craig Ramsay coached the Thrashers and while he's certainly a credible hockey mind, the club withered under his leadership.

Noel hasn't been afraid to place expectations on his group and then push and pull in order to get them to meet those goals. Noel waited a long time for this opportunity and he's confident and sure of his abilities. He's not afraid to fail but failing certainly isn't in his plans.

 

2. Accountability -- That noise you hear pounding in the heart of our downtown not only serves to motivate the Jets when they play at the MTS Centre, but it also acts as a reminder that they're no longer playing in a vaccum.

Media scrutiny and a knowledgeable fan base that have ponied up to sell out the building for at least the next three seasons. It helps to keep the Jets focused. When they soar the fans cheer and when they take a powder it gets noticed as well.

 

3. Maturity -- Noel has noted a change in his group. The signs are subtle -- from Dustin Byfuglien saying no to a rush when the Jets are leading late in a game to Blake Wheeler dumping the puck in when that's the play rather than getting cute and risking a turnover.

 

4. Depth -- Management has backfilled its roster with inexpensive but useful players like Mark Flood, Kyle Wellwood, Tanner Glass and Antti Miettinen. Look for a few more additions of this sort in a attempt to improve the roster while not trading away futures.

 

5. Leadership -- This is an organizational trend from ownership and its beliefs to GM Kevin Chelveldayoff to Noel and then into the locker-room where people like Andrew Ladd, Glass, Chris Mason and Mark Stuart work together to try and move the franchise forward.

This can't be underestimated. The organization has goals and, more importantly, a process that it will follow in order to get there.

 

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 29, 2011 C3

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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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