Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Jets feed us snacks while we wait for dinner

Keep fans happy as main course cooks

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The greatest challenge for a team on the rise is to be competitive in the short term while not jeopardizing the future.

Many franchises can't simultaneously juggle both ambitions. Some don't even try, and throw winning in the present out the window while focusing on building a future.

Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has a passionate fan base and a most unique situation here in Winnipeg, where the NHL was absent for 15 years. To bring back a team and then serve up a loser while not appearing to try for immediate wins could be seen as a betrayal.

Jets ownership understands this. Supper may not be ready but let's not leave our guests standing around with nothing to nosh on. Pass the hors d'oeuvres. It's the civilized thing.

Cheveldayoff did just that this week as he improved his club with the free-agent signings of centre Olli Jokinen and winger Alexei Ponikarovsky.

The Jets got better down the middle and bigger up front with two quick signings. Unquestionably an upgrade.

Better yet, Cheveldayoff wasn't forced to chew up future cap space for when the ripening prospects are ready for harvest.

Cheveldayoff has already locked up captain Andrew Ladd and No. 1 goalie Ondrej Pavelec, but still has five key elements in his young core that will soon need tending.

Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian, Blake Wheeler, Bryan Little and Toby Enstrom are all in need of contract attention.

Kane is the youngest and in a similar position to where Bogosian was last summer. Cheveldayoff signed the blue-liner to a two-year bridge deal and a similar package for Kane wouldn't be a surprise.

The other four are a little farther along and getting closer to unrestricted status, which Cheveldayoff must protect against. Waiting, as we saw in Nashville and New Jersey this week, can be expensive.

Signing all five of these players long-term might be a tall order but the sooner Cheveldayoff begins the better. He can gauge which players he can keep and whether he's going to need to make a trade. The closer unrestricted free agency gets, the more options for a player. The other side of the coin is the franchise gets backed into a corner and must decide between a trade, or holding on to sign a player at the risk of losing him for nothing.

Draft and develop is great, but only if a team can retain players once they're at the top of their game. Otherwise a franchise might as well consider itself a farm team for the rest of the league.

The next 12 months will set the blueprint for the Jets going forward.

Winnipeg's young players continue to grow and increase in value. Keeping them for the next four or five years will give the Jets an opportunity to be more than a fringe outfit.

Roster management and the discipline to keep to plan are proving to be among Cheveldayoff's strengths. He was dealt a difficult hand and last year could have been disastrous had he sold pieces before knowing what he had in-house.

The present is looking better and Cheveldayoff has put himself in position to cement the future.

All that's left is to do the dealing.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 7, 2012 C2

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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