Noel to coach Winnipeg NHL team

Claude Noel will coach Winnipeg's new NHL team, CBC sources have confirmed.

Claude Noel will coach Winnipeg's new NHL team, CBC sources have confirmed.

The Winnipeg Free Press first reported the story on Thursday, quoting sources as saying the relocated franchise has decided on Noel, who coached the American Hockey League's Manitoba Moose last season.

True North Sports & Entertainment, which owns the franchise, has not commented.

Noel spent three years with the Columbus Blue Jackets, first as an assistant and then as interim head coach after Ken Hitchcock was fired in February 2010.

He led the Moose to a 43-40-1-6 record last season, and has also made minor-league coaching stops in the ECHL and IHL.

The Winnipeg team still doesn not have a name going into the NHL entry draft on Friday and Saturday. Assistant general manager Craig Heisinger said Thursday that the team's top draft pick will don a sweater bearing the league's black and grey colours.

Heisinger and Noel worked together with the AHL's Manitoba Moose last season, but the hiring only comes after GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and Heisinger sat down for interviews with other potential candidates.

This weekend's draft marks an extremely important moment for a franchise that intends to build from the ground up. Heisinger identified it as the top off-season priority for the front office (finding a coach was No. 2 while free agency was No. 3) and the team should be able to grab a pretty good player with the seventh overall pick.

Habs, Crosby to open season

Everything started seeming a bit more real with the release of the 2011-12 schedule. Winnipeg plays its first regular season game against Montreal at MTS Centre on Oct. 9 before heading out on the road for two games and returning home to host Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Oct. 17.

Winnipeg didn't get much say in the schedule but was happy with what the NHL came up with, particularly the opener.

 "It will be tremendously exciting against a storied franchise and Original Six team like the Montreal Canadiens," said Heisinger. "That was something that the league stood up and felt they were passionate about -- getting a real high profile opponent on opening night."

There is still much to be done.

The franchise missed the playoffs the last four seasons it was in Atlanta and is still in need of some upgrades. It begins here at the draft but will also be addressed over the summer.

"We think we have the foundation, at least in our goaltending and our back end, to compete," said Heisinger. "We're going to try to improve our forward group going forward."

Everything has been happening in fast forward since it was announced the Thrashers were moving north on May 31 and there's no sign of things slowing down any time soon.

"[It's been] a bit of a blur," said Heisinger. "It's been busy weeks. This week hasn't been any different. …

"You hope that when those days run out in September that the light at the end of the tunnel is not the train."

With files from The Canadian Press