While it’s the players jumping over the bench that score the goals, make the big bucks, and get most of the glory, the man behind the bench is also of utmost importance to any NHL squad.
After all, it’s the head coach who chooses how to utilize players, prepares strategies, analyzes the minutia of every game, and oversees the development of young guns and prospects.
In total, the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets franchise has had a total of seven head coaches, some of whom found much success and others who found very little.
The Thrashers Era
Curt Fraser — 1999 – Dec. 26, 2003
The first head coach of the Atlanta Thrashers after the city was awarded a franchise as part of the NHL’s Sun Belt Expansion in the 1990s never managed an big-league bench before.
Curt Fraser, born in Cincinnati, Ohio but raised in Winnipeg and Vancouver, came to the Thrashers with experience as a player and coach, however. A left-winger selected in the second round of the 1978 NHL Amateur Draft, he played 704 career games for the Canucks, Chicago Blackhawks, and Minnesota North Stars and amassed 433 points in his career before retiring in 1990 due to back problems.
He became an assistant coach with the IHL’s Milwaukee Admirals that same year and in 1992-93, took over as the head coach. He was also the head coach of the Orlando Solar Bears for four seasons between 1995-99 and helped them reach the finals twice.
Perhaps it’s unfair to cast the Thrashers’ early failures entirely on Fraser, as they were an expansion team with little depth. Fraser certainly wasn’t helped out by Don Waddell either — the general manager made two abysmal draft selections in 1999, choosing notable busts Patrik Stefan and Luke Sellers with his first ever picks.
Although they added some talent through the draft in the years that followed — second-overall selection Dany Heatley won the Calder Memorial Trophy in 2000-2001 and Ilya Kovalchuk made a good impression in his rookie 2001-02 season — Fraser couldn’t get the team anywhere close to the playoffs. They won just 56 games in his first three seasons as bench boss combined.
Failure finally caught up with Fraser in 2002-03. After the squad got off to an 8-20-1-4 start despite adding free-agent talent in the offseason, Fraser got the axe on Boxing Day and Waddell took over himself.
“Talking with Curt…he was devastated after that loss,” Waddell said to the Associated Press at the time. “This is probably the toughest business decision I’ve ever made. He’s a good friend of mine, a good person. He tried everything with the guys, the message just wasn’t getting through. The players start tuning the coach out.”
Fraser finished his Thrashers’ tenure with a 64-173-31-15 record. He has not been an NHL head coach since, but spent four seasons as the Grand Rapids Griffins’ head coach between 2008-2012 before joining the Dallas Stars and serving six seasons as an assistant.
Fraser is currently the head coach of the Kunlun Red Star, a KHL team based in Beijing.
Don Waddell — Dec. 26, 2002 – Jan. 13, 2003
After firing Fraser, Waddell took over as interim head coach and the team captured a 4-5-1 record in their next 10 games. He then hired Bob Hartley to take over behind the bench.
Bob Hartley — Jan. 13, 2003 – Oct. 17, 2007
Hartley never played in the NHL but came to the Thrashers with an impressive resume. He’d coached the Colorado Avalanche for four seasons, winning a Stanley Cup in 2000 and leading them to the Conference Final in each of his other three full campaigns. However, he’d been canned in December, just a few days before Fraser.
Under Hartley’s leadership, the Thrashers began to trend in the right direction. They went 20–14–5–1 down the stretch, giving hope to fans as support remained decent (the Thrashers averaged more than 13,000 fans per game that season.)
The Thrashers missed the playoffs but it looked like good things were ahead. Unfortunately, the high-speed car crash caused by Dany Heatley that killed teammate Dan Snyder in late September cast a dark cloud over Hartley’s first full season. Even so, the team won a franchise-high 33 games and finished second in the Southeast Division.
After the lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season, the Thrashers continued to improve under Hartley’s leadership. In 2005-06, they added superstar Marian Hossa and won 41 games. In 2006-07, Hossa put up 100 points and the Thrashers went 43-28-11 to finish first in the Southeast and qualify for the playoffs for the first time. They were swept in the first round by the New York Rangers.
Blueland was abuzz, but the good times didn’t last long. The team started the 2007-08 season 0-6-0 and Hartley was fired, largely seen as a scapegoat for Waddell’s general incompetence at drafting and trading. Hartley finished his tenure with a 193–109–48 record.
“We started the year 0-and-6 and if you go back to last year how the playoffs went for us, we’ve lost 10 games in a row,” Waddell told The Canadian Press. “And I didn’t see anything that was going to change for us.”
“Whether Bob should be the victim here or not, time will tell, but unfortunately in this business coaches all have shelf lives,” he continued. And Bob’s has wore out I believe here. And it’s time for the guys to hear a new message.”
Hartley went on to coach the Calgary Flames between 2012 and 2016. He’s been the head coach of the KHL’s Avangard Omsk since 2018.
Don Waddell (Again) — Oct. 17, 2007 – June 20, 2008
Just as he did when he fired Fraser, Waddell took over head coaching duties himself after axing Hartley.
In his second stint, the team went 34-34-8 but missed the playoffs.
John Anderson — June 20, 2008 – April 14, 2010
After the season, Waddell appointed John Anderson the fourth head coach in history. Anderson, unlike Hartley, was a former player who enjoyed an 814-game NHL career with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Quebec Nordiques, and Hartford Whalers between 1977-1989.
Anderson, fresh off leading Thrashers’ AHL affiliate Chicago Wolves to a Calder Cup championship, was praised by Waddell as “a proven winner whose leadership and experience behind the bench will play a vital role in the resurgence of our hockey club.”
The “proven winner” Anderson couldn’t get the club to win consistently, however. They went 35-41-6 in 2008-09 and finished above .500 the season after at 35-34-23, but failed to qualify both times.
After the 2009-10 campaign, Anderson was fired and the desperate franchise shook up the front office, naming Rick Dudley the new GM and Waddell the club president.
Anderson left amicably, saying to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “one thing I understand about professional sports, is that ultimately if the team doesn’t do well the coach accepts all the responsibility. And I do rightfully so, no problem. When the team wins, the coach gives the players [the credit]. That’s how it is. … I understand the reality of it. We didn’t make the playoffs. I accept responsibility for that. Whatever happens, happens.”
Craig Ramsay — June 24, 2010 – June, 2011
In the offseason, Dudley went to work to try and give new head coach Craig Ramsay something to work with, acquiring Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd from the Stanley Cup-champion Blackhawks.
Dudley’s choice to hire Ramsay — who had spent the past three seasons as a Boston Bruins’ assistant coach — was a nepotistic one. The two were longtime friends and had even been roommates when they were Buffalo Sabres teammates the 1970s.
It wasn’t the first time Dudley had hired Ramsay, either. Ramsay had worked under Dudley as an assistant coach when the latter was GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“When you look for a head coach you’re looking for somebody who can bring players to their optimal level as quickly as possible, and I’ve seen him do that before,” Dudley said of Ramsay.
Despite the added personnel, the Thrashers finished 34-36-12 in their final season as rumours swirled and lawsuits emerged alleging the Atlanta Spirit group was actively looking to rid themselves of the money-losing hockey franchise.
The Spirit did indeed, find a buyer, but it was not a local one. It was Winnipeg’s True North Sports & Entertainment. After TNSE bought the Thrashers in late May, 2011, they announced neither Ramsay nor Dudley would not be invited to join them in Winnipeg.
The Jets Era
Claude Noel — June 24, 2011 – Jan. 12, 2014
Instead, the brand-new Winnipeg Jets appointed a new coach to move them in a different direction and distance themselves from the Atlanta losing.
The man chosen to lead the fledgling franchise into the future Claude Noel, who had coached the Manitoba Moose the previous season and took them to the second round of the playoffs. Prior to joining the Moose in 2010, Noel spent four seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets as an assistant and was appointed interim head coach there in February 2010 after Ken Hitchcock was fired but did not have his contract renewed.
In the Jets’ inaugural season, Noel coached the shallow team that suddenly played in front of 15,000-plus hockey-crazed fans every night to a 37-35-10 record, but the Jets finished out of the playoffs. In the lockout-shortened 2013-14 campaign, Noel and the Jets once again finished just above .500 — at 24-21-3 — but once again missed the postseason.
The Jets and Noel struggled mightily in their 2013-14 campaign. The systems Noel ran weren’t working and it certainly appeared that he’d lost the room.
Ultimately, a five-game losing streak and an embarrassing 6-3 loss to the Blue Jackets that dropped the Jets to 19-23-5 led to his firing on Jan. 12, 2014. Reaction was mixed among fans; some saw him as a victim of a poor roster and lazy players, while others saw him as a middling coach who did not bring anything novel to the table and wasn’t smart enough to correct the team’s defensive and goaltending woes.
Noel went on to coach the WHL’s Vancouver Giants for part of the 2014-15 season. He’s been a pro scout for the New Jersey Devils since August, 2015.
Paul Maurice — Jan. 12, 2014 – Present
The man hired to replace Noel remains behind the bench to this day.
Paul Maurice came to the Jets with 1102 games of head coaching experience under his belt, with the Hartford Whalers, Carolina Hurricanes, and Toronto Maple Leafs.
At the time, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff called Maurice “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.”
That’s been apparent over the (nearly) seven seasons with Maurice in charge. A widely-respected and diligent coach who has a good rapport with players and media alike, he has helped the Jets become a contender.
Maurice’s ability to evolve and grow as a person and a coach — and his ability to balance demanding much out of his players without bullying them — has been integral to the development of prospects into bona fide super stars, such as Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Connor Hellebuyck, Patrik Laine, Josh Morrissey, and Mark Scheifele.
The Jets have made the playoffs thrice under Maurice: in 2014-15, 2017-18, and 2018-19. In 2017-18, they went all the way to the Western Conference Final but were dispatched by the Vegas Golden Knights. This season, they were in a Western Conference wild card spot and playing their best hockey of 2019-20 when things were put on pause owing to to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Maurice sports a 272-190-54 record as Jets’ head coach. In an era where coaches are hired to be fired and often don’t stick for more than a few seasons in one market, he is the second-longest tenured NHL coach behind the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Jon Cooper. He is fifth all-time in games coached with 1600, seventh all-time in wins with 732, and yes… first all time in losses with 647.
The Jets signed Maurice to a multi-year extension in February. The Jets certainly had some challenges this season, but are well-positioned to be a competitive team for years to come and will continue to benefit from Maurice’s experience and intelligence.