Friday, June 4, 2010

Who is this Claude Noel?

Perhaps the most quickly dismissed of the four Columbus Blue Jackets coaching candidates is the team's current interim head coach, Claude Noel.  And the fan media has stepped up considerably in meeting the DBJ Coaching Candidate Challenge, with the exception of anything to summarize the background and approach of the man who's been under our noses all along.  So consider this my attempt to balance the scales, a follow-up to my Defense of Claude Noel (and Scott Howson), if you will.

In fairness to those who are dismissing his candidacy for the full-time coaching job, there is a fundamental logic in suggesting that if he was the coach of choice from the outset, he would have been hired by now.  The problem with that logic is, Scott Howson said that he was going to let Noel coach out the string and then conduct a full and thorough search for a permanent hire back when Noel was appointed as interim bench boss.  And Howson has once again proven to be a man of his word.  It may very well be that Noel ends up being the CBJ coach next year, but no one will say that Howson wasn't thorough - and that he took a long, hard look at the alternatives before sticking with his man.

In researching for this piece, I forgot how little Howson knew Noel when he promoted Claude from the assistant coaching position to the top spot for the balance of 2009-2010.  A couple of games after Noel was promoted, the Associated Press' Rusty Miller drafted this fantastic piece on Noel, his style and the impression he was making on Howson.  Howson really didn't know Claude at all...
As an assistant under Ken Hitchcock, who was fired after the Blue Jackets got off to a miserable 22-27-9 start this season, the players really liked Noel. He joked with them, acted up, played around and also worked hard with them. 
He has his own way of saying things. He refers to players as “stallions.” He is constantly talking about letting go and “freeing the mind.” Offensive players aren’t forwards, wings or centers, they’re “shooters.”
But in the Noel dictionary, the most important word is among the shortest. 
“That’s his big word — joy. He’s been saying it all year long,” goalie Steve Mason said.
“He’s kind of serious with us,” captain Rick Nash said. “When he was an assistant coach he was a bit more fun. Now he’s more serious, and he has to be. In here, he’s all business.” 
Noel, 54, said he hasn’t changed personalities. Perhaps his new position means he’s not the players’ best buddy anymore, but that doesn’t mean he’s not the same person. 
“I can still be that way, but not to the level they saw me as an assistant,” he said, sipping a bottle of water in his office after Tuesday’s workout. “They’ll see that again. They might not see that level again in this hockey arena. Maybe at the end of the season.” 
His boss didn’t hire him because he was popular with the players. Noel, a veteran coach in the minors, also knows what he’s doing behind the bench and in the dressing room. 
“I didn’t know about ‘joy’ and ‘free the mind’ and all the other phrases he’s grown fond of using,” general manager Scott Howson said on the day he promoted Noel. “I just knew that he was a good coach who has had tremendous success at the AHL level. It was more his track record and the people I know who knew him well along the way.”
The Hockey Writers' Rick Gethin also penned a fine piece at about the same time on Noel, offering this analysis a couple of games into the Noel coaching regime:
Still undefeated at 2-0, new (interim) head coach Claude Noel has brought a more relaxed atmosphere back to the locker room and, more importantly, is gaining the trust of a club that had very little over the last few months. 
The new look Blue Jackets are playing a style that seems to fit right in with the make-up of the team that GM Scott Howson had in mind when he started extending the contracts of the youngsters last summer. They are showing that they can play at a skill level that seemed stifled under the former coach. The last two games, while anything but perfect, were more free-flowing. The most evident change has been the confidence that they are showing in each other which would seem to be a direct result from having a coach that shows trust in them. 
Yes, they still make mistakes; that will happen when you play young guys. But Noel trusts them to learn from that. He doesn’t seem the least bit afraid to use all four lines on the ice for the entire game. Consequently, their collective level of play has risen.

Now we can joke about his quirks and silliness, but the man knows how to coach.  And he was getting through to the players (albeit this Rusty Miller quote came from Noel's Olympic-shortened honeymoon period):
“My coaching philosophy is really simple: I’m governed by getting better every day,” he said. 
Despite the catchwords and jokes, he isn’t all fun and games as a head coach. The players say he’s more of a taskmaster than Hitchcock, a kind and intelligent man who didn’t add a whole lot of levity. 
“He’s a lot stricter than Hitch ever was,” forward R.J. Umberger said. “There’s more rules.” 
So far, even the veterans are buying into what he’s selling — an oil-and-water mix of discipline, having fun, taking your job seriously and playing loose. 
“Everybody looks at Claude as a new face,” forward Raffi Torres said. “You just kind of forget the fact that he was an assistant coach for a while and let him do it. He’s won at other levels. He knows what he’s talking about.”
It's also now clear that Noel was more preoccupied with cleaning up the psychological mess left by Ken Hitchcock - especially with the young players - than implement his preferred system. He said so himself on February 3, 2010...the day he was hired:
"You’re going to see some changes,” Noel said. “But I’m not going to reinvent the game."
This approach was further confirmed the day before Noel interviewed with Howson for the full-time job:
"I'd have more time to do what I feel is needed to get this team headed in the right direction," Noel said. "When I took over last season, I wanted to provide clarity. I didn't want to add to the confusion. It wasn't a situation to go into and change things immediately. We needed to get certain guys going. We needed to get the team back on the right path. It was more about giving clarity to the group. That was, in my opinion, the immediate need."
So (interim) coach Claude suppressed his own coaching style for the good of the roster, helping the players get their heads right.  That means, coaching a system that he didn't necessarily prefer, he took a team that tanked from November through January - a team that was shedding salary and backfilling with AHL callups - and only pulled out a 10-8-6 record.

Folks, that's not a bad coach.  In fact, I daresay that's a pretty damned good coach.  And that's based only on what we know from his 24 games behind the bench in Columbus.

Perhaps more important to any consideration of Noel is what Claude did before Hitchcock hired him.  Look at the CBJ team bio on Noel, and you'll see some gaudy numbers:
[Coaching Nashville's AHL affiliate in Milwaukee for four seasons, Noel amassed a] 183-94-12-31 regular season record, three 100-point seasons and two West Division titles. He also compiled a 33-21 record in the Calder Cup Playoffs, including two appearances in the Finals (2004, 2006).
Oh yeah, he won a championship in '04, too.  And got AHL coach of the year.  Now, I'm willing to grant that David Poile's talent development system had more than a little to do with Noel's success (Remember how Dineen did so great in the playoffs with Anaheim's players but could only muster one playoff win with Buffalo's? Not ALL success is due to coaching talent...).  But four solid years with a .650+ win percentage and all that playoff glory should be awful hard to overlook.

Having discussed the "what" Noel did while in Milwaukee, we now have to look at the "how" he did it.  As the Hitchcock experience showed, past glory and experience only carries you so far with the team you're coaching today.  For that first-hand perspective, I went to Ryan Miller, who blogged circles around the rest of the hockey world on his Milwaukee Admirals-themed blog, Short Shifts before hanging it up at the end of this past season.  Ryan was there, watching Claude through his time behind the Admirals' bench, and probably knows his head coaching style as well as anyone out there.  So I popped him the standard 3 questions: (1) Tell me about his x's and o's strategy, (2) Tell me about what type of a leader/coach/motivator he is and (3) Tell me what I should know but didn't ask.  Here's Ryan's take:
From an X's and O's standpoint, some of that is dictated by personel and organization systems. The Predators and Admirals have been together for a long time, and I don't think the systems have changed all that much over the years. That said, Claude was able to get a lot out of the guys he had. 
Claude is a great instructor and educator. If you take a look at the two teams that he brought to the Calder Cup finals in 2004 and 2006, you'll see statistical improvement on both sides of the ice from players like Darren Haydar, Greg Classen (who?), Libor Pivko (who?), Greg Zanon, and others. Claude got the most out of his guys. And he boasts quite a long list of players that have had success at the NHL level. His assistant coach for the first three seasons I'm sure would attribute a lot of his success at the NHL level to Claude. 
In the championship year, Claude made a great coaching decision regarding his goalies -- he had Brian Finley (the high-draft-pick-prospect) and Wade Flaherty (the veteran). Finley played in more regular season games. But Claude rode Flaherty all the way to the Calder Cup in 2004. 
With the media, we never felt like he was lying to us or not telling us the whole story. He came across very intelligent, very cool, and not afraid to tackle the tough questions about his team. He would talk about hockey all day if he could. Between him and Lane Lambert (current coach), we have been absolutely spoiled, from a media standpoint, and from a team standpoint -- the team has accumulated at least 40 wins and 90 points in seven straight years. They're the only team in the AHL to have ever done that. Claude was a huge part of that. 
He's a great hockey mind with a positive attitude that just pulls you in. Extraordinarily likeable, and easy to respect. He stopped by a playoff game this past season, and everyone was so happy to see him back in the building. He certainly left his mark on the Admirals.
Frankly, the only plausible reason I can see not continuing Noel into the future as the CBJ's long-term answer as head coach is an overarching desire for organizational change.  To win, win a lot, win a championship and then be warmly welcomed back to town after leaving for Columbus speaks volumes to me about Noel.  He makes mediocre players play better.  He has is stricter yet the players have more fun playing.  It just sounds to me like he's a special coach.

If nothing else, Noel certainly deserves serious consideration...something I don't think any of us in the CBJ fan or media communities thought would happen when he was announced as interim head coach back in February.


  1. Great article! Claude is a great coach to have to develop young talent- and the CBJ have a lot of young talent. He is a proven winner and the players told me he brought a lot of joy to their locker room. I enjoyed Claude in Milwaukee- and have begun to follow the Jackets. Claude should be the head coach- rejecting him would be a huge mistake.

  2. Claude has 10 years as a head coach in three minor leagues- the others have 9 years when added together. Claude is a great developer of talent- and the Columbus players love him. And he would be cheaper than a Keenan or other retread coach looking for work. So what is holding this up? Pick Claude- you won't regret it.


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