Will Chevy go all-in?
Jets GM hints at making big move as trade deadline looms
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BUFFALO — It was fitting a group of Winnipeg Jets players were engaged in what appeared to be a serious game of cards at their downtown Buffalo hotel Wednesday afternoon at the same time their general manager was meeting with the travelling media in an adjacent conference room.
Kevin Cheveldayoff, after all, might have the best poker face of all, but in a 30-minute “state of the union” hot-stove session with media outlets, including the Free Press, the architect of the 26-14-1 club might have tipped his hand.
It appears he’s prepared to go all-in.
“I think you have to just seize the moment,” the normally guarded and cautious Cheveldayoff revealed. “You don’t know where the future is going to go on a lot of different fronts, the (NHL salary) cap, contracts, injuries, but one thing about this game is when you have an opportunity, you should try and take it.
“As a player, you hear stories of players getting so close and never achieving their goal, the woulda, coulda, shouldas of things at the end of their careers. If they had the benefit of hindsight, maybe they’d do different things. Those are the kind of things that you never want to, as a player, never want to leave on the table.”
Whether Cheveldayoff is ultimately bluffing remains to be seen between now and the March 4 trade deadline. An aggressive approach would likely be welcomed by his players and applauded by Jets fans.
Despite a rash of injuries in the first half of the season, Winnipeg is neck and neck with the Dallas Stars and Vegas Golden Knights for top spot in both the Central Division and Western Conference, which appears to be wide open this year. The Jets also have arguably their three most important players — goalie Connor Hellebuyck, and centres Mark Scheifele and Pierre-Luc Dubois — only 18 months away from being able to potentially walk in free agency. Former captain Blake Wheeler, too.
For all of those reasons, including how this group has responded to new coach Rick Bowness, it really would seem to be the time to focus on the present, and worry about the future another day.
“One thing, we’ve not been afraid to spend money,” Cheveldayoff said of True North’s mindset, which has seen the organization up against the salary-cap ceiling in recent years.
“We’ve not been afraid to spend draft capital. We haven’t had to spend prospect capital, but you take a look if you’re fortunate enough to be in that situation where you think there’s pieces you can add or want to add and are able to add, you look seriously at it.”
Winnipeg has been accruing cap space this year, to the point they could potentially weaponize it down the stretch and add a big name or two to bolster the ranks, the way they did in the 2017-18 when Paul Stastny helped them get all the way to the final four. They are one of just 15 teams who haven’t had to utilize long-term injured reserve in order to be cap compliant, which takes away the ability to bank money.
“We’re fortunate in that regard,” said Cheveldayoff. “It just gives you different options but we will see how things play out.”
Of course, this kind of conversation wouldn’t be happening if the Jets hadn’t played as well as they have so far. Tuesday’s disappointing 7-5 loss in Detroit aside, there haven’t been many nights where Winnipeg has underwhelmed, especially when the injury bug bit hard and they had as many as seven regular skaters (and more than US$25 million in salary) out of the lineup in December.
Cheveldayoff, who boldly proclaimed during training camp bringing in Bowness would represent a “seismic change” to the organization, sure looks like he knew what he was talking about.
“It’s not shocking, I guess, to me. One thing Rick is is he’s very authentic. When you do your due diligence and talk to different people about him, what you see is what you get. He’s a very positive person, a very intense person. He communicates well, has a passion for the game that he wears on his sleeve. Heck, he’s been behind the bench for 2,600 games in the National Hockey League,” said Cheveldayoff.
“We also had a group of players that wanted to have a guy that would hold them accountable. And was going to be direct with them and honest, all those sorts of things. As much as a coach can do, as Bones said, good teams are led by coaches, great teams are led by players. And that’s what we’re aspiring to become.”
Indeed, the likes of Hellebuyck, Dubois, Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Josh Morrissey are all flirting with potential career years, and Cheveldayoff said their collective buy-in has gone a long way to the club’s overall success. It’s mostly the same roster as last year, but with a very different mindset that is leading to drastically better results, one that began with a pre-season retreat in Banff in which a mission statement was created and signed by every player, spelling out the core values.
“I think you’ve got a lot of guys in there that have a common goal,” said Cheveldayoff. “I think everyone says the right things coming into each season. Everybody has those aspirations. You get asked ‘Are you a playoff team? Can you win?’ You can answer anything you want. I can say ‘Oh, yeah, rah rah,’ but at the end of the day the players have to play. And they have to play a certain way. The coaches here have a strong belief on how that way should be. And that’s the daily grind. That’s the daily mantra here. You have to be in the moment.”
Cheveldayoff was the subject of plenty of criticism last summer for not making very many changes to a group that missed the playoffs. A few below-the-radar signings such as Sam Gagner, Saku Maenalanen and Kevin Stenlund, and a couple waiver claims on Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and Karson Kuhlman is the extent of the roster surgery.
Those depth moves have certainly paid off, especially when so many skaters were sidelined with injury.
“I’m pleased with the way that we’ve kind of not looked for excuses when they were staring us right in the face. With guys being injured or different things like that. They found a way to get back to the roots of the game and do what you need to do to grind out wins,” said Cheveldayoff.
Now comes the challenge of not getting content or comfortable.
“I think this group, and what we talked about when we left Banff, what are we capable of? Let’s keep the outside noise outside and let’s care for each other and play for each other and let’s see what we’re capable of,” said Cheveldayoff.
“It’s a tough league to win in. We’re only halfway through and there’s lots of challenges ahead.”
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.
Updated on Wednesday, January 11, 2023 5:43 PM CST: Adds quotes sidebar
Updated on Thursday, January 12, 2023 6:23 AM CST: Adds web headline