When pundits across the NHL believe your team is among the best in the league, you've addressed your lineup's biggest needs and have spent to the salary cap ceiling, there's a lot of pressure to perform.
But ask Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, the architect behind a 2021-22 Winnipeg roster that is as strong as it's ever been in his 11 seasons here, and he has a different word for the heavy task that lies ahead.
"I think it's fun," Cheveldayoff said, speaking to media following the second on-ice session of training camp at the Iceplex Friday. "The guys out there on the ice, obviously that's where the games are won and lost. It's not won on paper; it's not won on the trades or the signings or anything like that. It's the guys coming together. It's being better in June and July than you were in September, October. It's taking those steps. And whatever happens along the way, learning from those experiences. I don't know if it's pressure. It's excitement. That's what drives players to play. It's that level of excitement to go and compete on a nightly basis."
Cheveldayoff has done what's been asked of him this past offseason. He addressed the holes on defence, acquiring veteran defencemen Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon in trades with Vancouver and Washington, respectively, and inked restricted free agent Neal Pionk to a four-year extension. Up front, he signed forwards Andrew Copp, another restricted free agent, and UFA Paul Stastny to one-year deals.
What he's also done is created a team, arguably for the first time over his tenure in Winnipeg, where every player is happy to be here. There are no trade requests to deal with, no disgruntled players to appease. Just a team pulling in the same direction.
"Well, I think it’s the group of guys we’ve assembled over time, the core guys that have committed to being here. The camaraderie that’s within that group, obviously you’ve got a lot of guys who have been here for a long time. You’ve got a lot of guys that we’ve drafted who have grown through the organization," he said. "And now we’ve got players like Paul Stastny who was here, went away, came back and is kind of like one of the postcards for saying ‘Hey, come to Winnipeg.’ We’ve got a good group of guys here that really care. We’ve got a coach that we want to play for, an organization that’s willing to try and do whatever it is, trade draft picks to get players to try to win right now. I think that’s the biggest selling point."
He added: "In hearing the guys talk about it, they miss the fans. This group of fans here in Winnipeg is a special group. Guys over the course of time, I think they begin to appreciate, by not having fans in the building, how much fans mean to them and the energy levels. When our building’s full, that’s going to be the exciting thing to be back here again. I wish they all could have shared in the Edmonton win last year, but that’s something that I think is going to drive the guys to want to achieve that and more."
Memo to Jets players: You better keep your head up on when Brenden Dillon is on the ice. The veteran defenceman made an immediate impact as training camp got underway this week, dishing out big hits on both Mark Scheifele and Kristian Vesalainen during Thursday's first scrimmage.
"Obviously you've got to be smart about things, new teammates. By no means is anybody trying to hurt anybody. You're just trying to get your timing down, getting some bumps in, obviously. Just kind of get ready to roll," Dillon said Friday. "When the competitiveness gets ramped up a little bit and you have a scrimmage and there are some refs on the ice, all of a sudden all of us get to another level. It was a lot of fun and a great first two days."
Dillon, 30, acquired from Washington in exchange for a pair of second-round draft picks, has been skating on a pairing with Neal Pionk.
"First and foremost, a good human being," Dillon said of his new partner. "Someone that it seems everyone in the locker room has a good relationship with him. I’m sitting beside him in the room, so I’ve gotten to know him. He’s a heck of a hockey player. You see how he affects the game in all three zones. We’ll get some chemistry together."
The 6-4, 220-pound Dillon admits he's carrying a bit of grudge after being moved by the Capitals only one year after inking a contract extension that will pay him US$3.9 million for the next three seasons.
"It’s definitely nice to feel wanted and I was actually talking to (Pionk) about that today about both of us being undrafted and having to take not necessarily the easy road," he said. "I think that’s part of it that’s kind of chip on your shoulder is you still want to continue to improve every year, whether you’ve played one game, 100 games or 500 games, to just continue to get better and kind of prove to the rest of the league and to your teammates that you can be a good player."
Dylan Samberg's camp is over before it really got going. The 22-year-old defenceman was doing a routine battle drill during Thursday's first skate at Bell MTS Iceplex when he went down in a heap. On Friday, the Jets confirmed he'd suffered a high-ankle sprain and would miss a minimum of six weeks, possibly longer.
"It's one of those where we’re going to give it as much time as it needs so it’s not something that worsens," said Cheveldayoff.
Samberg was taken in the second round (43rd overall) of the 2017 NHL draft and turned pro last year after three seasons at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. He skated in 32 games with the Manitoba Moose, scoring once and adding six assists. The hope was that he'd push for potential work with the Jets as early as this fall, and he was slated to appear in several of the club's six pre-season games.
"I think the thing that’s most disappointing for me with Dylan Samberg is this was his first training camp. He hasn’t had a chance to play an exhibition game yet, and unfortunately he gets hurt the first day," said Cheveldayoff. "Those are things where you have to roll with the punches. For him he’s going to come back stronger and keep battling."
It didn't take long for former Jets defenceman Sami Niku to find a new hockey home. The 24-year-old Finnish product, cut loose earlier this week by way of a mutual contract termination, inked a one-year, two-way deal on Friday with the Montreal Canadiens.
Niku, who won the AHL defenceman of the year as a rookie in 2018, will be paid US $750,000 at the NHL level and US $475,000 at the AHL level. He struggled to find a role in Winnipeg, appearing in just 54 big-league games during his tenure.
"It's an interesting situation. Obviously Sami was a player that when we drafted him, kind of unheard of seventh-round pick not a lot of people really talked about and he stayed over in Europe for a few years and came over and had a real good American League season, there's a couple of different things along the way that hurt Sami. The one training camp where we were expecting big things from him, he got in a car accident on the way to the rink. Getting ready to come back, he pulled his groin. Again, there's sometimes timing in this game begins to work against you," said Cheveldayoff.
"All along, you as a player, you have to do certain things that you need to do in order to push yourself ahead of someone else. This game here, you have to earn your job, you have to win that right to play ahead of some other talented players. And each year, there's a new crop of players that come in. Each year there's a Ville Heinola. Each year there's a Samberg. Some years there's a Nate Schmidt and a Brenden Dillon get added to the organization. Again, it's one of those things where we wish Sami all the best and hopefully he can find his way."
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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.