Claude Noel was named the interim coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets, immediately after the firing of Ken Hitchcock. Noel was a successful coach at every level of the minor leagues, and although he’s being provided with his first NHL head coaching opportunity, this doesn’t mean he will completely do so with his own plan and vision. No, this opportunity will occur with an edict.
While Ken Hitchcock’s regime with the Columbus Blue Jackets will not only be remembered for establishing credibility, responsibility, an identity and instilling a competitive nature to this long-downtrodden team, it was also be remembered for his retaining of some of the patterns that led to his demise in his two previous NHL stops:
Having too long of a leash for the veterans, while having too short of a leash for the younger players; exhibiting favoritism for certain members of the team; stifling the development of younger players by singling them out, limiting their minutes, and, at times, benching them for no apparent reason; showing unyielding loyalty – otherwise known as a ‘man crush’ - to certain players who were far past their prime; having endless ‘kumbaya’ sessions, after every flat or disappointing effort.
There were also some stupefying inconsistencies to his decisions that appeared to suggest some desperation on his part: establishing a ‘win and you’re in’ plan, only to deviate from it, repeatedly, for little or no reason; benching players for seemingly stellar play, while at the same time, allowing endless ice time for players who were ‘turnover machines’ – the list became quite endless, towards the later weeks of his regime.
But now, Claude Noel has taken over the reigns. It was long believed that Ken Hitchcock had free reign over the decision-making of the team, including which players he wanted to retain. After all, he was the face of the franchise as soon as he was hired by the late John H. McConnell, the founder, original owner and patriarch of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
For Claude Noel, he won’t be offered the luxury or freedom Ken Hitchcock was afforded. No, his interim reign will not be carte blanche.
Noel, during his initial post-game press conference, spoke of the team “going out there and having fun”. This, of course, is quite common for team to go from ‘good cop’ to ‘bad cop’ after a major shakeup with their coach. For Noel who, while a bit of a quirky guy, has never been reputed as a player’s coach – he was known as being a hard-nosed head coach in the minor leagues. So, in time, expect the ‘tough love’ and discipline to surface, eventually.
Scott Howson, the Blue Jackets General Manager, was brought in the season after Ken Hitchcock was hired as coach. Therefore, now that Hitchcock is no longer the coach, Scott Howson no longer has to deal with any potential conflicts in decision-making with a coach he inherited. Now, Scott Howson has full reigns in the decision for Hitchcock’s full-time replacement.
While I don’t have privy to what Scott Howson will do as it relates to who he selects for Ken Hitchcock’s successor, it’s quite obvious that he will have a new agenda and plan, in the interim, something in the form of an edict for Claude Noel.
That edict will go, as follows:
- Play the kids. Ken Hitchcock was known for stifling the development of his young players – specifically, Derek Brassard, Jakub Voracek, and Nikita Filatov, the last of whom left the team 19 games into his rookie season with the team. Filatov is currently in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) on a loan agreement between the Blue Jackets and the KHL team Filatov was previously committed to, prior to being drafted by the Blue Jackets. It is believed that now, given Hitchcock’s firing, that Filatov will return to the Blue Jackets – at what time is unknown, not having privy to the loan agreement.
- Spread the minutes. Another puzzling situation was that certain players – commonly known as ‘Hitch guys’, whether they played poorly, or not, were granted endless minutes of ice time, while players who were not in that category played far fewer minutes, even if they played exceptionally well. Evidence of this were the nearly even allotments of ice time between all forward lines and defensive pairings.
- Display the trade bait. Now that, barring the greatest regular season finish in the history of the NHL, the Columbus Blue Jackets won’t make the playoffs, they will enter the NHL Trade Deadline with tradable commodities. In the case of the Blue Jackets, given their record, that would place them in the category of being sellers, come the deadline. Evidence of this was Raffi Torres, an Unrestricted Free Agent (UFA) at the end of the season, being moved up to the 2nd line for Noel’s first game behind the bench, as well as defenseman Mark Methot being elevated to the first defensive pairing. Methot has been considered one of the primary defensive scapegoats during this season.
- Simplify the game. No one will ever doubt that Ken Hitchcock was one of the most prepared coaches in the history of the NHL; however, such preparation and the complexities that go with it often lead to a common mindset, more often prevalent in the game of golf, “Paralysis by analysis”. This was particularly the case with young and new players, something that only contributed to their confusion and taking a major step back in their NHL career development – commonly known as the sophomore jinx.
- Lighten up the locker room. Having such a stern and sullen environment can often lead to a sport no longer being fun, furthering stifling player performance, particularly with the younger players, which has become the blueprint of building a successful NHL organization. Evidence of the effect of this paradigm shift can be found with the evolution of Buffalo coach Lindey Rupp – from an ‘old school, tough as nails’ coach to one who fosters the nuances and leverages the upside and talent level of his younger players.
So, this will be Claude Noel’s edict. If he follows it, and the team’s success follows, he will be in serious consideration for the permanent head coaching position. If he doesn’t, then, unless the team pulls off a ridiculous late season run into the playoffs, expect a new, different head coach to be named, next season.