WINNIPEG – Claude Noel was fired as head coach of the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday morning, but general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff revealed the axe began swinging on Tuesday night.
Cheveldayoff told reporters at a press conference Sunday afternoon that he first contacted newly hired Jets head coach Paul Maurice on Tuesday after the team played poorly again, mustering only 14 shots in a 4-2 loss to the Lightning.
“I ended up reaching out to Paul after the Tampa game, just to see if I was going to go in a direction like that if he had an interest…” said Cheveldayoff, who also dismissed assistant Perry Pearn.
“At that point in time, it still wasn’t something that I was ready to do, but (Saturday) night I went to ownership and talked to them about making the change.”
The Jets lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets 6-3 on Saturday, giving up four goals in the first nine minutes of the second period. Fans booed the team off the ice.
“It’s not just the last two games, it is the consistency factor,” Cheveldayoff said, adding the team kept taking a step forward and then two steps back to stay around .500.
The club is 19-23-5 and 10 points back of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
The loss also put the Jets on a season-worst five-game losing streak, matching the longest regulation-game losing skid since the team moved to Winnipeg from Atlanta prior to the 2011-2012 season.
After getting the go-ahead from Jets owner Mark Chipman to fire Noel, Cheveldayoff said he called Maurice again and they reached a verbal agreement on a contract until the end of this season.
“We don’t have anything on paper, we have a handshake over the phone,” Cheveldayoff said.
“He’s flying in here (Sunday) night and going in that fashion. Again, he’s very passionate about getting here. When we talked about what he would need, basically it was like, ‘What time is the flight?’”
Born in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Maurice had been working as a TV analyst for TSN & NHL Network after spending the 2012-13 season as head coach of Magnitogorsk Metallurg of the Kontinental Hockey League. The club earned a 27-13-12 record and missed the playoffs.
Maurice inherits a Jets team that has struggled in its third season in Winnipeg, thanks in part to inconsistent goaltending and defensive breakdowns. The 46-year-old has been behind the bench for 1,084 games as an NHL head coach.
His first game leading the Jets will be Monday at MTS Centre against the Phoenix Coyotes. This will be the third franchise he has coached, after the Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes and the Toronto Maple Leafs. He got the Hurricanes to the 2002 Stanley Cup final and made five total playoff appearances with Carolina.
“Hiring Paul Maurice is something that we feel very good about as far as the opportunity that we have to hire an experienced National Hockey League coach to come in here and begin putting his stamp on the team, and also on the evaluation process that we’re all going to be going through,” said Cheveldayoff, who was given a contract extension last September through the 2017-18 season.
He’s never worked with Maurice, but the hockey world is small and his background checks produced good references.
“There was one common theme; (he’s) extremely professional, extremely prepared, extremely knowledgeable about the game and a guy that is very direct in one-on-one with his people and his players,” Cheveldayoff said.
Cheveldayoff, who called Noel a “special” and “caring” person, said he met with him and Pearn Sunday morning at MTS Centre to tell them they’d been let go. The GM says Noel was “very respectful” and they’ll meet again in the coming days.
Hired after the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg before the 2011-12 season, Noel went 80-79-18 during his tenure with the Jets. He had been given a one-year extension last June through the 2014-15 season.
The team was scheduled to practice late Sunday morning at another local rink, but it was cancelled when Cheveldayoff drove there after the dismissals to give players the news.
Captain Andrew Ladd and his teammates shouldered the blame for the coaching changes.
“I think it always comes as a shock,” Ladd said after the team meeting. “I don’t think anyone expected it this morning so it’s not an easy day. Two good people lose their jobs. Ultimately, it came down to the performance of all the guys in here. It’s tough for everyone.”
Forward Olli Jokinen, a veteran in his 16th NHL season, agreed the players should feel responsible Noel and Pearn had to pay the price for the team’s shortcomings.
“All of us should be embarrassed that we’re at the point we have to change the coach,” he said.
Maurice’s familiarity with a hockey-crazy market such as Toronto should bode well in Winnipeg, where players are heavily scrutinized by the media and criticized by fans who pack the sold-out MTS Centre.
“This is a tough market to play,” Jokinen said. “Any Canadian market you play, you know expectations are high. You’ve got a lot of media attention, you’ve got 15,000 GMs watching the games and another couple hundred thousand at home.
“So it’s a place, or any Canadian market, that you as a player you have to put all that aside and focus on doing your job the best you can. That’s all that you can do.”
He sensed, though, that players were getting easily frustrated and playing “a little bit scared, afraid of making the mistakes.”
Chevelydayoff, who said his own job “is still a work in progress,” admitted he also bears some responsibility for the players he gave Noel to work with.
“I’ve sat back over the course of 24 hours or whatever and sit there and say, ‘Can I do something else? What else can I do?’” he said.
“But what I have to be cognizant of is that I don’t do something that pushes the franchise backwards from an asset standpoint. Again, this is not without responsibility on my side here, too.”
The players acknowledged they’ll be auditioning for their jobs, although none have played for Maurice.
Defenceman Dustin Byfuglien, who moved to right wing for the game against the Blue Jackets, denied Noel’s message was getting old, but said a new guy in charge might help the team.
“I think so,” Byfuglien said. “Just someone coming in and no one really knowing him, it could be good for us.
“Just getting a new face, a different guy with different attitudes, see how it goes.”
Retired former Hurricanes goaltender Kevin Weekes, now an analyst on Hockey Night in Canada, gave a glowing endorsement for Maurice to a Canadian Press reporter.
“In my entire career, he was the best coach that I played for, both technically, his ability to relate to players, how he treated people, his preparation, you name it.” Weekes said.
“He was the best coach I played for in the National Hockey League. I played for some good ones, I’ve been around a lot of really good people, but hands-down he’s the best coach I played for.”
Cheveldayoff couldn’t say whether other changes are on the horizon for the Jets, but he thinks hiring Maurice is a step in the right direction.
“We believe that we are underachieving,” Cheveldayoff said. “Now it’s up to the players in some respects to show what they’re all about.
“But at the end of the day, we have to take a hard, long look at what other steps there are maybe to move forward.”