Opinion

The biggest takeaway from Tuesday's availability with Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff? How about the fact we somehow got him to sit down, and sit still, for nearly 45 minutes without so much as checking his phone once.

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This article was published 29/12/2020 (343 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The biggest takeaway from Tuesday's availability with Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff? How about the fact we somehow got him to sit down, and sit still, for nearly 45 minutes without so much as checking his phone once.

To say this is a busy time in the life of any hockey executive would be like saying 2020 came in slightly below expectations. Life sometimes moves fast, and that's certainly the case these days for Cheveldayoff, who is juggling multiple issues with just two weeks until the puck drops on a new NHL season that's going to be like no other.

Among the things keeping him up at night: Strict travel protocols and quarantine restrictions mean multiple players won't be ready to hit the ice when training camp begins Sunday. Injuries suffered overseas by other players that will keep them out. A salary cap that gives him little room to breathe. A couple of players who have publicly requested changes of scenery. The state of his blue-line. Heck, the state of his entire team.

Oh, yeah, and that whole pandemic, and the ever-present fear that the best-laid plans could go up in smoke should COVID-19 strike his team and lead to an outbreak.

Still, the trimmed-down Cheveldayoff never let us see him sweat during his lengthy Zoom media conference, repeatedly hammering home the exciting opportunity that awaits his hockey team, which came short of lofty expectations the past two seasons.

Seven Canadian clubs will compete in one division, playing each other nine and 10 times each. Four will make the playoffs. One will advance to the NHL's Final Four, which is where the Jets went in the spring of 2018 and where they desperately want to return.

Giddy-up.

"From a competition standpoint, I think it is going to be so exciting. It’s a unique time in this game with the things that we have had to do to push this forward so unique. Having the opportunity to have a Canadian division, where it’s a one-anthem game every night, and the excitement that goes along with it will certainly be unprecedented," said Cheveldayoff.

KEVIN CHEVELDAYOFF SOUNDBITES:

On the NHL and NHLPA getting a deal done

"A lot of behind-the-scenes work that should be applauded to set up all the protocols and efforts to move things forward here in Canada. Obviously we took some extra steps here to make sure, from a protocol standpoint, that we can cross interprovincially. So we are happy that that is behind us."

On the NHL and NHLPA getting a deal done

"A lot of behind-the-scenes work that should be applauded to set up all the protocols and efforts to move things forward here in Canada. Obviously we took some extra steps here to make sure, from a protocol standpoint, that we can cross interprovincially. So we are happy that that is behind us."

On the optics of playing hockey when the rest of the country has been told to basically lock down

“It’s something that’s not taken lightly. I’ve had the fortune of being on some of the calls between the provinces and the players association and the National Hockey League and the level of care and the level of detail that has gone into the protocols and the restrictions that are there for the teams on the road making the commitment that you’re only going from the hotel to the arena and back to the hotel and onto the charter, it is going to be a real restrictive environment when it comes to the players and their duties in this whole thing."

On the value of the NHL coming back

 "We’re all going through some real tough times here from having to stay inside, having to quarantine, not being able to see families during Christmas or during the holidays or respective gatherings that are traditional to everybody. One thing that hopefully we can do is provide them an opportunity to maybe get some joy and some enjoyment with respect to something that makes them hopefully feel good or hopefully feel passionate about. So having sports is more than just I think about the wins and the losses, I think it’s about a mental psyche of a community and a mental psyche of a society in a lot of respects. I think everyone is looking for something to make them feel good and we hope that we can provide that in a lot of different ways.”

On how the four to six player taxi squad might be formed

"The taxi squad will be a unique situation; we have never really seen it before having players that are just practicing and not playing. We have to take some things into consideration from a player development standpoint as well. There will be lots of information-gathering, lots of discussions still ongoing and lots of decisions that will be made once the players hit the ice and compete for a spot in training camp."

On where those who don't make the NHL club or taxi squad might play

"We are trying to understand where the American Hockey League will fit in and how it might have to operate for us this year. There is a lot of behind-the-scenes discussion that is still ongoing there. And certainly the (Canadian Hockey League) side of it does come into play as well, especially when we have a young player like Cole Perfetti coming to camp for the first time, and then just the European situations. There is so much information that you are taking in and compiling. But the most important information is going to happen on the ice. Seeing where everybody is at, with respect to the stages of their careers and obviously we are going to look at what is going to be best for our players’ development."

On his much-maligned blue-line

"We're excited. The opportunity to have (Derek Forbort). He's someone that, when he was in LA, he put in some top minutes before he had an injury. Put up some really good years playing against some good players, playing some shutdown roles. He relishes the penalty kill which is something that we look at improving. Obviously, we're excited that Dylan DeMelo chose to stay with us from a free agent standpoint. I know there would be lots of opportunity for him elsewhere, judging by the phone calls I got after we got him signed. Really excited about just the continuity of Josh (Morrissey) taking another step, Neal Pionk taking another step, Tucker Poolman having another year under his belt, Sami Niku, just really hope that he can use training camp as an opportunity to springboard because there is just so much more in his game that, unfortunately through the injuries and the like -- I guess we just have to make sure he doesn't drive to training camp so he doesn't get in a car accident to kick things off. And then we've got some young players that we're looking forward to seeing. Dylan Samberg has not had the benefit of coming to an NHL training camp yet. We've kind of been frothing at the mouth for a couple of years to get him into the pro ranks and now the time is here. Ville Heinola has had the benefit of playing over in Finland so his game, hopefully, will be at a level that will turn heads here right away. Obviously, he had a great training camp last year. We're just looking for him to come in and have matured that much more over the course of time."

On Winnipegger Jonathan Toews battling illness in Chicago and not being able to start the season (Cheveldayoff won a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks and Toews in 2009-10)

“It just goes to show that everybody's human whether you're a rookie or a 10, 12, or 13-year vet. There's lots of things that go on in people's lives. I don't know the exact specifics of what Jonathan is going through, but at the very core I do know how much that organization and all organizations care about their players, and the first and foremost thought always comes to the health of the player. So our best wishes go out to Jonathan as well. I didn't get a chance to see him during the off-season. Usually you do run into him. But with all the restrictions that go on, everybody was more to themselves, so never got a chance to see him. My thoughts also go out to Henrik Lundqvist, who is going through the heart condition. These guys are great players, wonderful ambassadors to the community, but they're good friends and good family members to many people as well.”

Whether the Jets can hang with the likes of the Oilers and Maple Leafs, the Canucks, Canadiens and Flames remains to be seen. (Sorry, Senators, although I think you're going to open some eyes). But with a Vezina Trophy winner in Connor Hellebuyck, and a top six forward group that now includes Paul Stastny along with Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine, Winnipeg likely won't be an easy out.

Speaking of that Laine fellow, it's no secret that his agent, Mike Liut, went public during the off-season with a trade demand. While the elephant in the room will have to be addressed the first time the Finnish sniper renews acquaintances with both his teammates and the media, Cheveldayoff doesn't believe it will be a distraction.

"I assume he’s probably going to have one of the best years of his career given the group of players that we have and the professionalism that is there. And the maturity level that all players gain year over year over year, I think just helps us move forward," said Cheveldayoff.

Big, if true, but not out of the question considering Laine will be playing for his next contract, as his current two-year pact expires next summer.

"Obviously camp is getting started here and we think with some of the acquisitions that we've made — obviously adding Stas — we think we've got one of the better, if not one of the best top-sixes, in the National Hockey League," he said. "I think there's lots of different combinations that can be very, very dynamic. We're excited and I think you're going to see some good things."

The Jets are going to be slightly short-handed to start camp. Forward Jack Roslovic, the team's lone remaining restricted free agent, remains back home in Ohio and has made it clear he'd like a trade. Young prospects Cole Perfetti and Ville Heinola, currently playing for Canada and Finland at the World Juniors, will have to serve seven-day quarantines once they leave the Edmonton bubble and head to Winnipeg, as part of strict protocols in place for all clubs.

With the gold-medal game set for Jan, 5, and the NHL regular-season set for Jan. 13 (the Jets open against the Flames Jan. 14 at Bell MTS Place), both could end up missing all of camp. That's where the four-to-six player "taxi squad" might come in to play, one of the new quirks to the year which will allow teams to keep larger-than-usual rosters that won't count against the salary cap.

Which is a good thing for the Jets, who will only become cap compliant when they place Bryan Little on long-term injured reserve due to a career-ending head injury suffered last season.

"From a competition standpoint, I think it is going to be so exciting. It’s a unique time in this game with the things that we have had to do to push this forward so unique." – General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff

Depth forwards David Gustafsson and Marko Dano likely won't be available to start camp due to injuries suffered recently while playing on loans in Europe. And fourth-string Russian goalie Mikhail Berdin will also be a late starter due to travel issues and the required quarantine. The Jets are planning to bring a couple new players to camp on professional tryout offers, but Cheveldayoff wasn't willing to divulge any names.

Much has been made about the sorry state of last year's blue-line, with many (including yours truly) suggesting Cheveldayoff hasn't done enough to improve in that department.

You won't be surprised to learn Cheveldayoff sees it a bit differently. Whether it's having a full season of the re-signed Dylan DeMelo, progression of players such as Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk and Tucker Poolman, the potential of free agent addition Derek Forbort and the opportunities for young players such as Heinola, Dylan Samberg and Sami Niku, Cheveldayoff believes they should be vastly improved.

We're soon going to find out.

"When we went into the bubble situation in Edmonton, it was kind of like just pushing start again. It truly was a pause. Guys were in the middle of a season and when you all got back together, it was a continuation of the season. This is starting something new. There's lots of changes on virtually every team," said Cheveldayoff.

Now, if you'll excuse Cheveldayoff, he's got a few more miles to go before he can sleep.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

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.