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This article was published 8/1/2017 (1578 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
BUFFALO - With the Winnipeg Jets officially at the midway mark of the 2016-17 NHL season, Free Press reporter Jeff Hamilton was part of a small group that sat down with general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff at KeyBank Center ahead of Saturday's game against the Sabres to talk about a few of the key moments over the first half of the year.
Now 42 games into the year, how would you assess things at the halfway point of the season?
"Like anything, there's certain points that you like and certain points you'd like to see be better. But I really think you have to go back to the beginning of the season here and take a look at where this group was believed to be and what our intentions were when we iced the team at the beginning of the year, some of the decisions that we made at the beginning of the year knowing that there was going to be some good times and bad times.
"There's positive spots as well (with) obviously some of the younger players taking the steps that they have and either first-year players that have become big contributors or second-year players now that are stepping their games up and have really jumped in. So there are lots of story lines. But at the end of the day we measure ourselves on a daily basis and on a game-by-game basis and at the end (of a season) you want to be above the line when it comes to the playoffs. That’s what we're working towards and this group still has to earn that opportunity."
Maurice has said earlier in the week that he's put an asterisk beside the first half of the season given the number of injures and the hectic schedule to start the year. Do you see it that way?
"I think Paul was also the guy at some point that said your record is your record. It is what it is. Each and every game you set out to ice the best lineup that you can given what you have. The coach's coach that way, to win each and every single game and at the end we evaluate.
"We were dealt some things that teams will go through moving forward from the schedule standpoint, we were dealt some things from an injury standpoint that you have to – that you're forced to – at some point, look at from a positive perspective and say it's given us an opportunity to see some different players in different roles and see how they respond.
"You don't replace (centre) Bryan Little very easily and you see that with the plays that he's made on this road trip. He missed a lot of hockey – not just this year, but (also) the year prior. Now I think you're seeing him getting up to speed with what Bryan Little is all about.
"So you miss those kinds of things. You miss Tyler Myers, we missed Jacob Trouba for the first part of the year. The bright spot is that you get Josh Morrissey doing things, stepping in. I don't know if there was anybody sitting here, whether it's (the media) or us, that projected Josh to be doing what he's doing at this point. And that's the game. That's the game, that's development, that's what, when a player's ready, he shows you, he tells you. Not by verbally or anything but he does it by his play and by the opportunities that are given to him.
"Josh is a great example (of that), Joel Armia was a great example. Losing Joel for 20 games, that doesn't help his game. Maybe that's what Paul's talking about with the asterisk because there are some things there. I think in our tenure here the man games lost is at (its) highest...we lost a lot of defencemen at different points in time (two seasons ago) but I think we had seven or eight guys out at one point (this season). It's certainly not a positive thing when you're trying to build cohesiveness and then given the schedule that we had."
How would you assess the job that Paul Maurice has done this year?
"I like our coaching staff. I like our coaching staff top to bottom. I think certainly from the American League standpoint, if you take a look at that we've got a great group of guys. (Moose head coach) Pascal Vincent, his key focus is on the development of our young players there. We've got some real key prospects that are playing in that organization right now and that is going to be a real important aspect of us taking the next step as a Jet. So, good job there.
"And the addition of (assistant coach) Jamie (Kompon) into our room I think has given another new perspective, another new voice from the outside that's been able to come in and then maybe assess some things and say 'hey, here's how I've seen it from the outside.' And again, I think Paul has done a great job of getting that group together.
"Now, the results, those are things that everyone gets measured on. But as a coaching staff, I'm happy they're a part of our group here. When Paul came in we talked about this. We talked about all the steps that were going to have to happen. We talked about there was going to be some tough decisions to be made to maybe go young in some key positions. Where a lot of coaches in this league would fight you on some of those situations, some of those decisions...say I want the veteran guy, I want the 500-game guy because there's that confidence level in that body of work.
"What we're trying to do is we're trying to win the ultimate prize, we're trying to win the Stanley Cup. We've talked about the methodology on how we were going to try to get to it and that involves taking some steps that are very difficult and you have to have faith in those steps (that they) are going to continue to (be) built upon. Paul and I have a great relationship and conversations in that regard."
I imagine it’s also important he has your trust for the sake of job security, so not to worry about his decision-making?
"I don’t think I'm the type of manager that tries to make the coach feel like he's coaching for his life but this is a very difficult game to be in and it can be unforgiving at times. But I think you have to have a good understanding and a good relationship with your coach, between the coach and GM.
"It's not all flowers and roses behind the scenes sometimes but at the end of the day, Paul and I, we have a really good and healthy respect for each other and the job I'm trying to do to bring the type of players into our organization and the job that he has to do to try to mix those players in, try to push them at the right times and do some different things. It's a tough gig but I'm real thankful that he's part of our group."
How has Patrik Laine handled the expectations of being the No. 2 overall pick in the NHL Draft?
"Everyone understands the big smile I tried to hold back when we won the (draft) lottery, going from (picking) sixth to second. The type of player we had the potential to draft at that point was huge for our franchise and certainly he's been all of that and more from how he's played from the drop of the puck. Everybody sees him on the ice and sees what he does, (but) he's handled the situation very well off the ice.
"He's a humble person. He's well liked by all his teammates. He works hard. He's a very coachable person when it comes to conversations he and (head coach) Paul (Maurice) have. It's a real pleasure and we're fortunate he's a part of our organization."
You decided to go young in net with Connor Hellebuyck (23 years old) and Michael Hutchinson (26) in net. How do you think those guys have handled the goaltending duties?
"It's a big responsibility. I would say it's still a work in progress. Like anything, young players have to go through these situations, learn from them and grow from them. It's a very unforgiving position for young players to be in. Connor came in (this season) with 25 or 26 games played last year, certainly in a different type of role than he's playing right now.
"We didn't make the decision lightly to do what we did at the beginning of the season, putting Ondrej (Pavelec) on waivers and giving the opportunity here (to Hellebuyck). We knew that there was a lot of work ahead of us in that regard. The decision was made with the thought process in mind that we're building towards the future. Is our future today? No, we're not there yet but we like what we're seeing. They're young goaltenders that work hard each and every day and that's the recipe you need to get better."
How do you feel Hellebuyck has been handled, with first being part of a rotation, to seemingly the No.1, to sharing the net again, to now earning four straight starts?
"The biggest thing for me, where I think it hurt us is our lack of practice time. When you look at some real veteran teams I think that they can get away with; whether its veteran goalies, or veteran forwards or veteran defenceman, having 400 or 500 games under the belt and understanding the league and understanding they're at the pinnacle of their careers.
"With any team our age, certainly with the young players that we're asking to be key performers on any given night, I think practice time has been something that they've not had the benefit of. In a goaltending situation (that’s important), that's something important in a special teams situation and I think that you gloss it over when you don't have it because you have to play. You've got that three-games-in-four-nights mentality where you rest on that off day so that you can have enough (energy) to continue to go.
"And I can't say it's wrong but it's a phenomenon that we've had to deal with and I think that young players, although they maybe benefit from the rest, I think they really suffer from the lack of that fine-tune working."
With Vegas set to join the league next season, how does the looming expansion draft change the dynamic for you?
"So all our pro scouts are coming in here to Buffalo and they'll fly back to Winnipeg with us tonight and we have a week of meetings coming up right now. There will be lots of conversations moving forward now about how the other teams set up, how we set up, what might happen at the trade deadline and what not.
"You've got 40 games essentially under your belt to see some of the players – whether it's our team or throughout the league – that might be involved in that. So you start to project a little bit about where things might be.
"There's an interesting phenomenon right now in that, at least how I see it, in the league there are 10 teams that essentially are spending way over the cap, into LTI (long term injury), and they're spending well above the cap; there's 10 teams that only have about a million and change under the cap and don't have the LTI or don't have the ability to spend beyond; then you've got 10 teams that are where they are for a reason, whether it's their budgets or their cap or their contract situations moving forward. So it makes it difficult for those type of different moves to happen at this point in time. That's why you see things, when they do happen they happen towards the trade deadline. You see a lot of salary retentions, you see a lot of different things that come into play.
"There's always that dynamic with the cap, that no one truly knows what the cap is going to be and what's going to happen with the cap. Expansion draft is part of it, future contracts of some of the young players in the league and how it affects teams that are maybe into LTI or at the cap, that's a big part of it as well. So all these things get put into the blender when it comes to even making a simple transaction."
How would you define the relationship with Jacob Trouba after a rocky start with contract negotiations?
"I don't know if there's been a minute’s thought given from the moment we signed the contract (in early November) and I think Jacob is playing fantastic right now and credit to him. The time off that he had at the beginning there (missing training camp and the first 13 games), he really came in good shape, he came in (with) a good frame of mind and we've said it all along he's a big building piece for this organization. We're excited to see what he's doing and how he's doing it."
How do you feel Blake Wheeler has handled being the captain?
"I think he's been handling it exceptionally well. He obviously had a great start to the season having been named to the World Cup team and that was an exciting thing for him. I think that from the moment he stepped back here for training camp he assumed that leadership role and he's really been good.
"No bigger showing of it was when Laine had the mishap (Laine scored on his own net, which was eventually the deciding goal) in Edmonton (Dec. 1) and I wasn't at that game but I was watching it on TV and you can just see the raw emotion that Blake was feeling for him when he put his arm around him. Those are big things – big moments, the learning moments - for the young player to know that the team has their back but they're also learning moments for a captain. To see (him) at the height of an emotional moment like that, how we chose to react."
You made a big commitment to Dustin Byfuglien, signing the defenceman to a five-year deal, worth US$38-million. Do you think the big ticket has affected his play at all?
"If you look at the minutes that he's played it's a byproduct of having some guys out of the lineup at different points in time, whether it's Jacob at the beginning and now Tyler. There’s still that learning process for Josh coming into the league.
"(Because of those reasons), Buff's minutes soared, from being one of the higher guys in the league to being THE highest guy in the league. Given the amount of time and the amount of games we've played in a short period of time, it's a very difficult thing for Buff - for any player - to run their game at the peak offensive levels where a lot of player's like Buff get measured at. But the amount of minutes he's played for us this year, I would say he's earning his keep."
With Tyler Myers out for 25 games and expected to miss even more time have you thought about bringing in some help?
"From an injury standpoint it's always difficult to know when somebody is coming back or not coming back. We're hopeful that he's on the right track here but as far as - knock on wood - we've been really fortunate with the group that we have such stability back there.
"Tyler, he's a big part of our defence and it's hard to put into perspective that when you have a player that might be playing 23, 24 minutes a night to not playing at all, taking him out of the lineup how much more can you add to it? Having said that, trying to find guys in the league that are available that can play 23, 24 minutes a night; there's none that are moving, that are doing that so you can talk about what you'd like and what you want but the reality is it's hard to find the impact players to make trades."
Did you ever imagine Ehlers and Morrissey would make the kind of steps they have this season?
"Well certainly Josh is a different one because he only had the one (NHL) game last year and I thought he played well in it but one game is one game and then he got hurt. The biggest thing is he's keeping his game simple and he's establishing a foundation in the National Hockey League and that's essentially what every young player needs to understand.
"When they're coming into the league they're not all going to take the league by storm. You have to establish a foundation somehow and whether it's through defensive (play) or different things, you've got to gain the coach's trust, you've got to build your own confidence and have that foundation whether you're a goalie, whether you're a defenceman, or whether you're a forward."
"In Nikolaj Ehlers' case, you saw him start to take off at the end of last year so what he's doing right now isn't much of a surprise; certainly if you watched him play in junior hockey (with the Halifax Mooseheads of the QMJHL). Now in my mind I'm starting to see that player that used to take me out of my seat when I was scouting him in Halifax. When he has the puck, his speed and play-making ability - the goal he scored in Tampa, just stopping and cutting on a dime - those are things that make him a special player. We were extremely fortunate to get him in the position we did (9th overall, 2014)."
For an organization, when you lose a top-10 pick in Alexander Burmistrov on waivers, how tough is that to deal with?
"On a personal note it's difficult because I like Burmi, I liked his energy. I remember watching him play junior hockey the year that he was drafted. I wasn't with the organization but you're still scouting for the draft within your own organization. It is difficult but the evolution of what's transpired here is really what makes it...I don't know what the right word is but you can handle it because when you see a (Nikolaj) Ehlers come in, when you see what he's been able to do in his second year, when you see what you have coming in with (2015 first round picks) (Jack) Roslovic and (Kyle) Connor and (Brendan) Lemieux, you know you're pushing the organization in the right direction and that's all that you can focus on."
email@example.com twitter: @jeffkhamilton
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.