New Winnipeg NHL team lands coach, prepares to make draft selections

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MINNEAPOLIS - Everything is happening so quickly for Winnipeg's new NHL team these days that assistant general manager Craig Heisinger feels like time is passing in a blur.

The franchise has rapidly started taking shape after officially releasing its schedule on Thursday and calling a press conference Friday morning to unveil Claude Noel as coach—hours before making its first draft selection.

With so much to do, the biggest challenge facing the hockey operations staff has been trying not to hurry through any big decisions.

"I don't know how we don't be rushed at this time," Heisinger said Thursday. "But if we're careful, meticulous, stop, think and make sound decisions—hopefully we'll make fewer mistakes than more."

The team said it would make a "significant hockey operations announcement" on Friday and Heisinger refused to comment on the multiple reports Noel had been selected as the team's coach.

The two men 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.

The first Winnipeg prospect won't be handed a team sweater—"we'll be presenting the National Hockey League colours in black and grey," said Heisinger—and the brass expects to have to make a quick decision when they're called to the stage.

"In all likelihood, it will be a game-time decision," said Heisinger. "We obviously have identified what we think we need to do for our group. We'll see how it goes with the six teams in front of us and go from there."

After all the work that has been done to land the NHL team, it promises to be a proud moment when Winnipeg takes centre stage and select its first prospect.

"I think it'll be exhilarating, especially for our ownership group," said Hesinger. "They've put a lot of time and effort, not to mention money, into making this dream a reality."

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 Center 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."


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