Panic? What panic? Cheveldayoff looking forward despite slump, hints at Maurice's future and won't rule out trade-deadline splash

DENVER — The architect of the Winnipeg Jets doesn't hold court very often, preferring to stay out of the spotlight and let his coach and players do the bulk of the talking.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/12/2019 (1004 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

DENVER — The architect of the Winnipeg Jets doesn’t hold court very often, preferring to stay out of the spotlight and let his coach and players do the bulk of the talking.

But with his team approaching the midway mark of the current campaign — and mired in a slump that has their current grip on a playoff spot slip-sliding away — general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff sat down Monday for a rare “state of the union” address.

As we broached a wide-range of topics during the 45-minute session at the University of Denver athletic centre where the Jets were practising, Cheveldayoff displayed no signs of the panic that has consumed many Winnipeg fans these days, thanks to a 2-5-1 run and a daunting upcoming schedule, including a New Year’s Eve game against the high-flying Colorado Avalanche.

To date, the only tinkering Winnipeg Jets' General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has done to off-set a spate of injuries are three waiver-wire additions and a handful of Manitoba Moose callups.

“Obviously the stretch we’re going through here right now, certainly there’s tough opponents, but that’s the National Hockey League. And you want to be considered a tough opponent as well when push comes to shove,” said Cheveldayoff.

Indeed, the Jets were the bullies on the block for much of the past two seasons, but they’re struggling to flex their muscles these days against some of the NHL heavyweights. A 4-1 loss in St. Louis Sunday left their record at 21-15-3, good for the first wildcard spot in the Western Conference, but only a one-point cushion on a playoff spot with 43 games left.

“There’s no question the line to success for any National Hockey League team doesn’t go in a straight line. It doesn’t in life. Anyone who wants to try to say the road is smooth in any aspect of anything, you’re probably looking at it through rose-coloured glasses,” said Cheveldayoff. “There’s nothing automatic in this game. It’s a very humbling game if you don’t do the right things.”

With his team in danger of sinking, you might think it’s time for Cheveldayoff to throw them a life preserver in the form of big trade. To date, the only tinkering he’s done with the roster are three waiver-wire additions (Carl Dahlstrom, Luca Sbisa and Nick Shore) and a handful of Manitoba Moose callups (Joona Luoto, Logan Shaw, Jansen Harkins) to off-set a spate of injuries.

Not exactly move-the-needle kind of stuff. But the historically patient Cheveldayoff seems to prefer a wait-and-see approach with this group, hoping the team can work its way out of the funk and return to the kind of form displayed through November and early December.

“This is the ups and downs of the season. You’ve got to work your way through it and find a way to scratch or claw and look at things in a smaller frame of mind rather than the grandiose big picture. Because you do have real estate in front of you and it’s what you do with that real estate in front of you that matters now,” he said.

Still, I was surprised to hear Cheveldayoff say he’d be open to making another big trade deadline splash, provided the Jets are still in the fight come late February. Surely he’s not going to trade another first-round pick, the way he’s done the past two years (for Paul Stastny, and then Kevin Hayes), right?

“There’s no sitting here saying I wouldn’t. I’m of the mindset that our scouts do a great job of finding other players in different rounds as well. If I feel, and we collectively as a group feel there is something out there that can make a difference, then we’d strongly take a look at it,” Cheveldayoff said.

Much has been made about the fact Paul Maurice doesn't have a contract beyond this season. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The rationale, he explained, is that simply punching your ticket to the post-season gives you a shot at Lord Stanley, and it’s only fair to reward so many members of the core who have signed here long-term with the expectation of icing a contender.

“When I signed guys like Blake (Wheeler) and when they made commitments to us, when Mark Scheifele made his commitment and all of these guys made their commitments, my commitment to them is we’re going to try and win every year. We’re not sitting here saying, ‘Well, wait until next year.’ At one point in our organization, we had to. Those guys had to buy into that waiting process,” said Cheveldayoff.

After bidding goodbye to 2019 against the Avalanche, they return home Thursday to face red-hot Toronto, followed by a four-game road trip with stops in Minnesota, Montreal, Toronto and Boston. That’s a tall task for any team, let alone one missing a handful of key players in Bryan Little, Andrew Copp, Mathieu Perreault and Dmitry Kulikov, along with an inconsistent power play and a league-worst penalty kill.

“If we want to be and have the success that we want to have, we’re going to have to find a way to get more consistency out of our special teams,” he said.

Much has been made about the fact Paul Maurice is believed to be a “lame-duck” coach right now in that he doesn’t have a contract beyond this season. Cheveldayoff was asked if that means evaluation of the bench boss, and his future in Winnipeg, is still ongoing.

“I think Paul Maurice is the right coach for this organization. And I think he’s done a good job moving forward. What happens in the future, that’ll be done behind the scenes and at some point you’ll all know,” said Cheveldayoff, who praised Maurice for handling numerous curveballs thrown his way.

That certainly sounds like you can expect an extension to be coming.

Dustin Byfuglien is undergoing rehabilitation in consultation with the Jets, so it looks like there could be an amicable reunion. (Jeffrey T. Barnes / The Canadian Press files)

Speaking of unexpected developments, the Dustin Byfuglien situation was a doozy. The veteran blue-liner was given leave at the start of training camp to contemplate his playing future and later suspended without pay. He underwent ankle surgery weeks later. Now, as the 34-year-old rehabilitates in consultation with the Jets, and with the potential for an arbitration showdown over lost wages seemingly waning, there is hope for a happy reunion.

“Dustin Byfuglien is a big part of what we had planned going into this season. The first and foremost thing is Dustin Byfuglien has to decide in his mind that he wants to play. That’s the biggest hypothetical, so we can all answer those hypotheticals if that one gets answered first. He’s been off for quite a while now. If you look, I think he’s only played, in the calendar year, maybe 16 games,” said Cheveldayoff.

He couldn’t provide a specific timeline, but said things should begin to move on that front soon.

“We all know Dustin. I’ve probably known him longer more than anyone else and I know the impact he can have and the guys know the impact he can have, too. It just has to be right from a playing standpoint, because if you’re going make an impact, you have to be ready to make an impact,” he said.

On the subject of defencemen, Cheveldayoff suggested it’s only a matter of time before 23-year-old Sami Niku is back with the big club. He’s suffered three different injuries this year, but returned to action with the Moose on Sunday and could give Winnipeg’s battered blue-line an injection of speed and skill.

“I think Sami is going to be a big part of this group moving forward,” he said.

As for 19-year-old rookie forward David Gustafsson, Cheveldayoff revealed he has a contract clause that would allow him to be assigned to the Moose once he’s done playing for Sweden at the World Juniors. As a second-round draft pick in 2018, many thought it was either return to the Jets (where he’s played 22 games this year) or go back to his club team in Europe.

Finally, Cheveldayoff praised the play of goalie Connor Hellebuyck and Wheeler, the slightly-less-surly captain who has admitted he’s trying to be a bit more pleasant to be around these days. Wheeler continues to lead by example, including moving to centre when Little went down with a major injury early last month.

Captain Blake Wheeler has been leading by example, including moving to centre when Bryan Little went down with an injury last month. (Dilip Vishwanat / The Associated Press)

“He’s an intense person. Sometimes, with that intensity and I know that even in my own personal life, it’s hard when you live it and you wear it and you want it so bad, it’s hard not to take it home (with you),” said Cheveldayoff.

“Sometimes you may do some things that you don’t think that you’re doing, until you step outside of your own body. Those are the things that Blake has had, those maturation things. You talk about young players maturing but those 30 year old players mature as it goes too. He’s been a very good leader, he is a very good leader and he’s a very good person. Wearing his heart on his sleeve is all done for the betterment of not only himself but this organization.”

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.

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