Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Patience isn't everything...

... It's the only thing, as far as the Jets go

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In Jacob Trouba (right) and Mark Scheifele (centre), Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has the best pair of rookies in the league, Lawless argues. The future may be distant, but it is bright.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

In Jacob Trouba (right) and Mark Scheifele (centre), Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has the best pair of rookies in the league, Lawless argues. The future may be distant, but it is bright.

Maybe, back when he took the job, Kevin Cheveldayoff should have just come out and said it. Told Jets fans what they didn't want to hear. Sent the marketing department a memo simply saying, "Deal with it," and put his cards on the table.

"Dear fans, we suck. We have no organizational depth and not one player that can be called elite. We need to draft a bunch of players and let them get ready to be NHLers. We don't have the cachet to attract top-end free agents and in a cap world it's near impossible to rebuild a team that way. The playoffs are a long way from now. I don't know how long. It will depend on how well we draft and the pace at which the players develop. So get ready to lose a lot of games. We'll try to be competitive and do our best with the waiver wire and limited free agency. But we won't be burning assets or wasting resources to be a bubble team in the near future. Don't expect any miracles. What we have to go through will be painful and will take time. Thanks for your continued support through an unpredictable process in which there are no guarantees."

These words, of course, have rarely been uttered by a GM. But they're true. True in that they sum up exactly what Cheveldayoff has been doing since Day 1.

Somewhere along the way a high-priced media expert told Cheveldayoff he was better off saying nothing rather than putting out words that could be twisted or later used against him. This strategy, however, has allowed a void to open in Winnipeg. A void fans and media have filled for themselves with unchecked expectations. To the point where an artificial watermark has been established that the Jets currently fall well below.

Cheveldayoff's limited message has folks believing he's behind schedule. But he's not. He might even be ahead of it.

Cheveldayoff's steadfast refusal to veer from his vision has been his brilliance. We all have our views and opinions on the Jets in this city. Here's mine: Kevin Cheveldayoff is the right guy for this job, this market and this set of circumstances.

Certainly he's made mistakes, but that's the job. No GM gets it all right. On the big-picture stuff -- the vision, the plan and the ability to execute it -- Cheveldayoff scores off the charts.

There was little in the tank when Chevy took the wheel. The evaluation of the organization's talent was overstated by so many of us during those heady first days.

The glass may now look half empty but the GM is having a positive effect and the organization is far better off today than when he took over. The evidence is now in front of our eyes on a nightly basis in Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba.

Winnipeg has the best pair of rookies in the NHL and for the first time in a long time the franchise has a pair of players that have the potential to be top-10 or better at their position.

These are early days, but Trouba reminds a lot of NHL people of a young Chris Pronger. Scheifele, who has yet to finish growing, has No. 1 centre written all over his game.

At this summer's prospect camp in Penticton, B.C., Cheveldayoff's roster was the envy of his peers. The restocking of the pond is underway. Two of the minnows are now big fish. The others are still maturing.

In the draft-and-develop department, the GM is leading all his NHL counterparts in the time since he took office. That's not just my opinion, but one shared by executives across the NHL. Cheveldayoff is on course to build a contender.

Over the course of the last three years, Cheveldayoff has locked up the assets he inherited. They're mostly on long-term deals at reasonable rates. They can fit in as new blood comes in, or as a result of the contracts they're now under, they will prove portable.

This brings us to the team on the ice right now. The one led by coach Claude Noel and which fans are paying big dollars to watch.

Life in the Southeast Division gave the Jets roster the appearance of being on the verge. But a half season in the Western Conference's Central Division has laid bare many facts. The Jets? They're not even close.

They're missing all kinds of ingredients. They're short on talent and have a leadership group incapable of getting the most out of themselves on a nightly basis.

Is Noel helping the cause? Cheveldayoff will have to make that determination, and likely that review process will be extensive this summer. For me, it's hard to blame Noel for the sins of this roster. But no one is going to chain themselves to the door of a sub-.500 coach.

Should they be better than they are today? Most certainly. Will some of them have to go? Absolutely.

But they had to be retained and now, with the cap rising next season, the Jets find themselves in a strong position to move forward.

The GM, the guy with his hands on the wheel, has never uttered the phrase "five-year plan." Most likely because getting where he wants to go, which is not a four-game sweep of his team in the first round of the post-season, will take longer than five years.

Secondly, Cheveldayoff's plans for the Jets don't just end one day. They're not finite and they're not fixed. Rather the opposite -- they're infinite and fluid.

The maxim -- draft and develop -- won't change. But as the organization's roster of NHL players and prospects matures, Cheveldayoff will have to become more reactive to the needs of his big-league team.

Recently, "the honeymoon is over" phrase has been getting tossed around. Maybe it is. We'll know a lot better this summer when the first phase of ticket contracts comes up for renewal. My guess is the Jets already have a pretty good idea what will happen as a result of discussions and surveys with their season-ticket holders, and the answer is close to nothing. Maybe a handful will elect to give up their seats, but they'll quickly be snapped up by those on the waiting list.

Jets chairman Mark Chipman is the bridge between sales and marketing and Cheveldayoff's hockey operations department. If there was panic on one side, it would have spread to the other. Quite obviously, as noted by Cheveldayoff's resolute adherence to his plan, this is not the case.

Change for the sake of change isn't coming. It's just not in the plan.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 27, 2013 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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