Captain Andrew Ladd and his teammates shouldered the blame for Winnipeg Jets head coach Claude Noel getting fired and replaced by Paul Maurice on Sunday.
“I think it always comes as a shock,” Ladd said at a local rink after Jets’ practice was cancelled in the wake of the news. Assistant coach Perry Pearn was also fired along with Noel.
“I don’t think anyone expected it this morning so it’s not an easy day,” said Ladd. “Two good people lose their job. Ultimately, it came down to the performance of all the guys in here. It’s tough for everyone.”
Noel was fired after the Jets lost to the Columbus Blue Jackets 6-3 on Saturday in a game in which Ladd said he played “awful” and the fans booed the players off the ice.
The loss put Winnipeg on a season-worst five-game losing streak that dropped them to 19-23-5 and 10 points back of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
Maurice and Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff agreed to the terms of the new head coach’s contract over the phone. He will sign the actual deal when he arrives in Winnipeg.
Cheveldayoff said on Sunday that Maurice’s deal is only until the end of this season.
Noel, hired after the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg before the 2011-12 season, went 80-79-18 during his tenure with the Jets.
“All of us should be embarrassed that we’re at the point we have to change the coach,” said forward Olli Jokinen, a veteran of 16 NHL seasons.
Jokinen added that the players should feel responsible.
“You’ve got coaches, they spend a lot of hours at the rink trying to figure out how to turn things around and we didn’t respond very well and now they’re the ones who have to pay the price,” Jokinen said.
Maurice inherits a 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 as an NHL head coach for 1,084 games.
Maurice’s first game 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.
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 100,000 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.”
That lack of confidence was pointed out by Noel following the loss to Columbus.
“Right now, adversity is really the enemy and we’re not dealing with it very well, and we’re trying to deal with it,” Noel had told reporters on Saturday. “There’s going to be no easy way to get out of it.”
No Jets players have played for Maurice, although they were aware of his credentials.
“I see a tremendous amount of experience in the NHL, so I think he’s going to bring a lot of experience and a lot of knowledge to what it’s going to take to be a winning team,” forward Blake Wheeler said of Maurice. “It’s going to be about our conduct on the ice, but I think it’s about building a culture, too, so I think he’s going to bring a lot of that to our team.”
Wheeler said a change seemed inevitable as the Jets continued struggling and he felt “entirely” responsible for his part in Noel’s dismissal.
“Ultimately, we’re the ones on the ice not getting the job done,” he said. “I think we’re all responsible, but I think as players we need to look at ourselves. This is an indication of the product we’re putting on the ice right now.”
Maurice got the Hurricanes to the 2002 Stanley Cup final and made five total playoff appearances with Carolina.
Defenceman Dustin Byfuglien, who moved to the right wing for the game against the Blue Jackets, said players have to look at themselves and move forward.
He 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.”