In the middle of an ugly slump, Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has fired the only head coach this incarnation of the franchise has ever known. On Sunday, Darren Dreger reported that Claude Noel was out, and that Paul Maurice would be replacing him:
Can the move turn the Jets’ flagging fortunes around?
Before turning to the future, let’s start with the past. The chart below shows the NHL standings for the first three seasons of the Jets’ existence against the last three seasons of the Thrashers’, but does so with a twist.
Not only are the results of this season and last projected to 82 games, but shootout effects (which are almost entirely random) have been removed; in other words, games decided in regulation or overtime are awarded as wins and losses, while games that went to the shootout are awarded as ties. The idea here is to remove as much noise from the standings as we can.
The Cheveldayoff/Noel Jets don’t look especially good overall, but they do when compared to the Thrashers. Last season, played entirely against the weaker Eastern Conference, saw the team post a winning record when considered this way (22-21-5), for only the second time in franchise history. This season, playing in the West, the team has dipped to its worst level since 2008-09.
The effect of moving to the tougher West had a big impact. The Jets are 11-9-1 in the NHL standings (a 90-point pace) and 9-9-3 (when treating all shootout decisions as ties) against the NHL’s second-tier conference. They fall to 8-14-4 (a 63-point pace) when playing the West.
That the Jets are playing true 0.500 hockey against the East is remarkable given the current state of the goaltending.
Of the 38 NHL goalies to play 20 or more games this season, only one has posted a worse save percentage than Ondrej Pavelec’s 0.898. That goaltender is Devan Dubnyk of the Edmonton Oilers, at 0.895, and he has since been largely supplanted by Ilya Bryzgalov.
In other words, no coach in the NHL was getting a more miserable performance out of his current primary goaltender than Noel. We can talk about systems or the way Noel handled players like Evander Kane and Dustin Byfuglien, but the bottom line is that the Jets coach was going to be in serious trouble no matter what he did. Moving to a tougher conference was a major blow, and Pavelec’s play was the coup de grâce.
That’s the trouble with viewing the hiring of Paul Maurice as the solution to Winnipeg’s problems: While he may make some positive changes, he isn’t going to fix the things that dropped the Jets to the bottom of the standings this season.
Maurice, like Noel, is stuck with a starting goaltender whose career numbers rank him 28th of the 30-most used goalies in that span (as per Hockey-Reference.com). Pavelec’s proven inability at the position is a major stumbling block that Cheveldayoff will need to address, and the sooner the better.
Maurice can’t airlift the Jets back to the good old days of the Southeast Division either, when the travel was tough but the slate of opponents was the easiest in the NHL.
What the hiring of Maurice can do is determine whether this group of players is capable of doing more to offset the challenges that Winnipeg faces. Under Noel’s guidance, the Jets had significantly outperformed the team that left Atlanta; clearly, Cheveldayoff feels that the team can take a further step with a new coach.
Because as we’ve seen, that’s what this decision requires. The Jets aren’t any worse than they were a year ago; the team’s record against the East is as good as it was then. The problem is that, given the move West, running in place means a steep fall in the standings. Noel would have needed to get much more out of his roster just to tread water, and he wasn’t able to do so. Now Maurice gets a chance.
It’s a tall order.