Draft drama on tap
Big names could be on the move as teams build for the future
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MONTREAL — Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is expecting plenty of drama over these next couple days as NHL clubs are on the clock and looking to build on both the present and the future.
With no consensus on how it all might unfold — mock drafts are all over the map — he believes there could be plenty of surprises and movement.
“It is going to be interesting; There is going to be a lot of gasps and ahhhs,” Cheveldayoff predicted of what could be in store when the first round goes Thursday night at the Bell Centre and rounds two through seven are held Friday afternoon.
Bring. It. On.
Don’t look now, but Cheveldayoff’s club could be right in the middle of the madness. Not only do the Jets own a pair of first-round draft picks (No. 14 and No. 30), but there’s no shortage of trade rumours swirling around the organization. Captain Blake Wheeler, centres Mark Scheifele and Pierre-Luc Dubois, and defenceman Brenden Dillon are all players whose names have recently come up for a variety of reasons.
“It’s always active. The time of the year that we are in lends for conversation practically about anybody,” Cheveldayoff said without tipping his hand. “As a manager, you have to listen. Whether I hear them or not is a different story.”
Winnipeg is coming off a disappointing campaign in which it failed to reach the playoffs for the seventh time in 11 years. Several players were angry and publicly pointing fingers by the end of the year. True North took a mighty swing in trying to lure free agent coach Barry Trotz to town, but the Dauphin product declined. He’s opted to spend the year on the sidelines with family. That prompted Plan B — as in Rick Bowness, who will be joined by associate coach Scott Arniel and two more yet-to-be-named assistants in trying to get this group back to being a contender.
Desperate times, indeed. But desperate measures, such as a blockbuster trade or two? Stay tuned.
“It’s that time of the year where, as a manager, if you’re not asking questions or you’re not taking calls or getting calls, then something is not right,” Cheveldayoff said Wednesday after emerging from a three-hour meeting with his fellow GMs.
As he spoke, he was holding a box of Titleist golf balls that every manager received as a gift. When asked by the Free Press what he intended to do with them, he provided a hot scoop: “I’m going back to my room and I’m putting them up right now to see if I can get a seventh-round pick for some of these,” he cracked.
OK, so that’s not exactly a swap that would rock the hockey world to its core, but beggars can’t be choosers.
Draft-and-develop has always been an important mantra for Winnipeg, and the organization currently owns seven total picks which can replenish the pipeline.
“I think there’s some statistic out there that we have drafted like the third least amount of players over the last couple of years. We’ve traded picks, obviously, to acquire players. We’ve traded picks to chase the playoffs and stuff like that. So it is important that you do start drafting,” said Cheveldayoff.
How to balance all that with a desire to right the ship, so to speak, especially with players such as Wheeler, Scheifele, Dubois and goaltender Connor Hellebuyck all two years from unrestricted free agency? As Cheveldayoff noted, none of the fresh-faced teenagers eligible to be selected this week are likely going to help a team win immediately.
“We’re obviously looking to add to our prospect pool. We’ve had success with getting players in this kind of range that have made impacts on our team. At 14, certainly we’re looking for a player that may not make an impact next year, but will make an impact in a relatively short period of time,” he said.
Adding to the uncertainty this year is the fact internal team draft boards likely look markedly different, given what is widely seen as a draft with no sure bets at the top, but plenty of depth. Part of that is still pandemic-related, with many Canadian junior players having lost close to a full season of development due to COVID-19 cancellations.
“The lists of the individual scouts are different as well. You put a lot of emphasis on the scouts who see a broad spectrum of players. Your crossover scouts, your head scouts, that do see all of the ranges of players,” said Cheveldayoff.
“The regional guys are always very passionate about their own regional players. They’re the ones that are generally pounding the table quite hard when you’re making that list to make sure their thoughts and feelings are involved. But, sometimes it’s democratic and sometimes there’s a vote and it’s closed and you’re outvoted.”
There’s also major question marks about selecting Russian-born players and their potential availability given the invasion of Ukraine and current political climate.
“It is certainly an interesting time in the world when it comes to that aspect of things,” said Cheveldayoff. “Each organization is going to look at it differently and I’m sure every organization ranks and rates the players, at least I know we do, with respect to where they should be. It will be each club’s internal decision as to whether they choose to make that pick.”
The draft, along with potential trades, will be the primary focus over the next 48 hours. But there’s other important business as well, including the start of free agency next Wednesday. Veteran forward Paul Stastny and backup goalie Eric Comrie are Winnipeg’s most notable players who will be free to shop their services if not re-signed by then.
There’s also a number of restricted free agents who need new deals, including Dubois (assuming he isn’t traded), Jansen Harkins, Mason Appleton, Evgeny Svechnikov and David Gustafsson.
“Well, we have a core that is locked up in lot of different areas. Cap space is what it is so to speak. We do have some RFAs that are going to eat up what is the perceived cap space of what we have right now. The cap itself only went up a million dollars, not a lot of money when you’re having to sign a couple different players that deserve raises,” said Cheveldayoff.
“We will take a look at whether it’s free agents or whether there are names that are being shopped out there with respect to other teams, and then see if there are any fits. The roster as it stands right now, there is a lot of good pieces and I think that’s what Rick alluded to when he talked about the excitement of coming here.”
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.