Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Jets taking time to build a contender, not pretender

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Knowing when and if the Winnipeg Jets will win a Stanley Cup is difficult to judge, but with each passing day it becomes more apparent the club is in the hands of the right people.

Coach Claude Noel has the team performing on the ice and if they make the post-season they will exceed the expectations of many considered opinions.

Upstairs, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff continues to plot for the future and nudge this program along with quiet but astute moves.

There was no shortage of Claude Who and Chevy What when the Jets began to announce their hockey operations staff.

They weren't household names with a stable of media backing them up. Noel was a minor-leaguer and Cheveldayoff had never run a team went the thinking. Who do these True North guys think they are hiring people they know and believe in?

Fortunately, Mark Chipman isn't the type to listen or worry about the sniping of outsiders. Chipman's faith in these men is now being rewarded. He's not surprised, even if the doubters are.

Noel has taken a team that, while clearly talented, had proven to be mentally soft and unable to live up to its potential. They went in fits and spurts while known as the morbidly underachieving Atlanta Thrashers and when the games got tough they just plain disappeared.

Noel's message of accountability fell on deaf ears early on and this team was a complete dog well into November. A sub-.500 record and hovering in the lower regions of the conference were bad enough signals, but more troubling was the way the team played. Soft and disorganized were frequently accurate adjectives.

Noel, however, stood firm and chipped away at the Jets' flawed exterior until he could strip them bare and begin to rebuild from the ground up. A soaring December showed us the first glimpse of what this team could be, but gave way to a middling January.

The growth, however, had taken root and February has been a month of affirmation as the Jets have moved back into the playoff picture and have just one regulation loss in their last seven games.

Noel is a major factor in the further development of this group and has undoubtedly proven to be a good choice.

Monday's trade-deadline work by Cheveldayoff again paints him in a favourable light. The Jets, in acquiring defenceman Grant Clitsome for free off the waiver wire and then later peddling Johnny Oduya for a pair of draft picks, improved their present outlook while at the same time stockpiling futures.

No, Cheveldayoff didn't make a deal for a rent-a-sniper. He also didn't overpay for a player that wouldn't make it past July 1 in Winnipeg.

The Jets may end up being a playoff team, but they are nowhere near being in the position to consider dealing assets for post-season wins.

Cheveldayoff must be a realist in his assessment of his roster and while it's clear he considers the Jets a potential playoff club, he can't overestimate their worth.

Keeping one eye on today and one eye on the long-term plan isn't easy and lots of GMs have lost their balance in trying. Cheveldayoff will likely err on the side of the future and that's the right strategy. There are no shortcuts in a salary cap world and teams must develop their own stars.

Cheveldayoff's moves must now be turned into successful acquisitions, but they are the right decisions.

Watching the Winnipeg Jets is already fun. There's atmosphere in the building and the team has played itself into relevancy.

But Cheveldayoff and Noel are charged with being more than a novelty act. They are expected to produce a contender capable of winning more than a berth in the post-season tournament.

The real excitement might be a few years off but these two are intent on getting there and are beginning to make it look like they know just how to get it done.

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

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 28, 2012 D1

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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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