Chevy guns engine, goes nowhere
Jets GM defends team, says little about future
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Kevin Cheveldayoff spoke for more than 40 minutes in his year-end media availability Sunday afternoon. While the general manager of the Winnipeg Jets uttered plenty of words, few provided much insight into the direction his NHL club is headed as they shift gears to a potentially franchise-altering offseason.
The Jets enter the summer after bowing out in five games to the Vegas Golden Knights in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. It seemed like the final shot for a core group of players that, despite being here for some of their prime years, ultimately accomplished little.
Winnipeg has won just three playoff series, two of which came during their run to the Western Conference final in 2018. Still, Cheveldayoff remained confident in his group, leaving one to believe he’s OK with the status quo.
“You can take a collective look on a lot of things, but every team is different, every series it’s a different thing,” Cheveldayoff said. “Ultimately, you’re going to end up with losses if you’re not the Stanley Cup champion. That core (group of players) got us to five of six (years into) playoffs as well. That can’t be lost.”
While the playoff appearances are certainly etched in team history forever, what can be lost are several key players that make up the current core – one Cheveldayoff has leaned on and supported for years. With Mark Scheifele, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Connor Hellebuyck and Blake Wheeler all eligible to become unrestricted free agents by next summer, Cheveldayoff will either have to find a way to ink them to extensions, trade them, or keep them for one more season at risk of losing these valuable assets for no return.
Each one of these players spoke Saturday – where they took one final visit to the arena to clean out their lockers and conduct exit meetings with Cheveldayoff and head coach Rick Bowness – and none provided the slightest inclination that they wanted to stick around long-term. Nor did any express any interest in the team going through a rebuilding phase, a pivot that will likely be determined by how many, if any, of them opt to sign a contract beyond next season.
Cheveldayoff said it was still too “fresh” and too “raw” to get any clarity from players about their interest in committing long-term. He then started to list off injuries to all-star defenceman Josh Morrissey and leading goal-scorer Mark Scheifele as reasons for their early postseason exit, which he would reference several more times despite claiming not to be interested in making excuses.
As for whether he’d be comfortable with any one of Scheifele, Dubois, Hellebuyck or Wheeler playing next season on an expiring deal, Cheveldayoff opted to take another pass.
“My priority is to take a step back and assess everything. We had conversations, obviously, individually with all the players and certainly those players involved. I have not had any conversations with any of their representatives yet,” he said. “All the guys, they wanted to talk about the year, they wanted to talk about the series. They wanted to talk about the appreciation of how good this group was together and how they enjoyed that opportunity to play together and appreciated that.
“We stood here at the beginning of the season and there were a couple players that commented that they relished the fact that they were kept together to try to get to playoffs, and that’s what they accomplished. We’re not sitting here waving any banners or anything like that, that’s unfortunate, but there’s a lot of good people in that room that pushed this organization to a good place.”
Reports have surfaced from NHL insiders close with the organization that the Jets have no interest in tearing apart the roster. Cheveldayoff said he wasn’t ready to make any “bold proclamations” about the future.
Under the current crop, the group has gone through three coaches over the last two seasons, and in all three situations players have appeared to rebel against each one. Longtime bench boss Paul Maurice, who spent parts of nine seasons in Winnipeg, left midway through last year, noting players needed a new voice; interim coach Dave Lowry was completely tuned out after taking over; and this year, players threw criticism, while taking little to no responsibility themselves, at Bowness because he said he was “disgusted” by the team’s effort after they were dominated by Vegas in a 4-1 series-clinching win in Game 5.
“Bones was very, very candid, and I would never take that passion away from Bones. Because I do think that a couple of ill-used words doesn’t define what went on this year and shouldn’t define what went on this year,” Cheveldayoff said. “(The media) are maybe underestimating just how hard it is to make the playoffs, and just how hard it is to build a group of professional athletes that obviously all have talent, all have throughout the course of their career different successes at different things. It just really underscores the job that Bones and his group came in this year to get that.”
Then there was the topic of his own job security. Cheveldayoff is the only general manager Jets 2.0 have ever known, and he confirmed on Sunday he’ll be behind the wheel as they try and navigate through the uncertainty of the offseason.
“I’m not coming up here, I guess, to justify my job. I have the pleasure and the privilege of having one of the 32 general manager jobs in the National Hockey League, and you don’t take that lightly,” he said. “I have the distinct honour of having it in one of the most passionate markets in the league, where the game means so much to the people of Winnipeg and the province of Manitoba. You come into a season, I don’t really read all the articles, but I’m not sure who predicted we were making the playoffs this year. We provided an opportunity for this team to have a level of competition to be in the conversation of making the playoffs and moving forward over the course of time.”
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.