Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Noel raises the bar for 2012-13 season

Team better be better or players will feel his ire

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Autopsies can be gruesome. And when a hockey coach is conducting one on his squad in early April and not well into May or June there are often multiple causes of death.

So leave it to Winnipeg Jets head coach Claude Noel, then -- perhaps in an attempt to bust up the funereal tone at the MTS Centre on Easter Sunday -- to open his last official media session of the 2011-12 campaign with a question of his own:

"How's my hair?"

Now, while the boss put on a brave face during his 14-minute chat with the press and had his usual collection of juicy sound bites -- "I've got fly fishing on the brain. I see trout... they're calling my name out. I go by rivers, I pull over" -- there was obvious disappointment in his voice.

And with good reason. The Jets organization, and Noel specifically, had set the playoffs and 96 points as a goal.

So finishing with a 37-35-10 record and 84 points -- 11th in the Eastern Conference and fourth in the Southeast Division -- left the Jets well short of their primary objective. It also meant Noel had a clear message to deliver to the troops during their exit meetings:

Get better ASAP or feel his wrath come next October.

"We had a good meeting with the players and talked for about 15-20 minutes," said Noel. "Chevy (GM Kevin Cheveldayoff) and Mark (Chipman, owner) talked a little bit about where we wanted to go as an organization and as a team and what would change this year vs. next year. We don't want to be standing here in April next year going down this same path. How do we prevent that? How do we start that process? We gave them food for thought about moving forward. Things have to change."

Pressed to elaborate, Noel added:

"The first thing for me is we have to be better. Our attitude has to be better. We have to want and expect to be in the playoffs. Our conduct, our existence just has to be better, that's where it starts. I think we're getting there and that's what I want them to think about over the summer. There's something to be said for walking like a champion. Guys that have won before, they just conduct themselves a certain way. People that haven't, conduct themselves in another way and I think we can do some things in the right fashion."

The facts are the Jets, with 84 points, finished closer to the Eastern Conference cellar than to a playoff spot: 15th-place Montreal had 78 points while eighth-place Ottawa had 92. Their road record was fourth-worst in the NHL, they were just 3-5-2 in their last 10 games and went 0-3-1 in their last four at the MTS Centre.

And all that hardly adds up to a spot in the Stanley Cup derby.

Noel wouldn't jump into a discussion about personnel needs, but instead spoke of a collective mindset. It's an approach he's been attempting to change since the Atlanta Thrashers officially became the Jets on May 31: Losing stinks and unless a franchise does something to change it will continue to be an also-ran. The Jets/Thrashers have now missed the playoffs for five consecutive years and qualified for the post-season just once in 12 springs.

"What has to change for us... it's just the way that we think and we play," Noel said. "It's a mentality and that's really what has to take hold next year right from training camp and it will, because it will be mapped out and I'll be pushing harder and expecting more. People are going to know that when they leave today, tomorrow... they're going to know that we'll lean on them more. We have to change, we have to get better. It's just part of growth. You have to expect more from yourselves.

"The bar has got to go up and we have to raise it. If I didn't think we were able to, then I would say, 'Lookit, we can't raise the bar. We've achieved to the highest level.' But I don't think we have yet."

Yes, so let's not paint the picture of a disgruntled coach who wants to scrap the whole blueprint and start building again. Noel saw growth in the team's young players this season, even if it didn't result in a dramatic leap up the standings. But what he wants now is the next step in the team's maturation: More accountability, more commitment and an expectation of winning -- the kind of thinking that is prevalent in places like Detroit and Pittsburgh, Boston and Vancouver.

And he is absolutely convinced it can happen here in the NHL's smallest market.

"I think we've got a good thing going here and not for one second will I take a back seat to anywhere else," Noel said. "We're a good team. This is a great place to play. It's going to be a destination players are going to want to come to. And if they don't want to, then don't come. It's that simple.

"Green Bay (Packers) wins. What the hell's in Green Bay? You been to Green Bay? I mean, I've been to Green Bay. It's a nice town, but... Winnipeg's going to be a good place to play. I think players really like it and the response we get from our players is they love playing here. It won't be for everybody. So be it. Some guys might want to golf all year round. Go ahead.

"I learned a long time ago you don't sell your soul to get a player to come. You get him to come for the right reasons and you'll win."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 9, 2012 C2

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