LOS ANGELES — Kevin Cheveldayoff is sitting in a private suite overlooking the Staples Center ice surface, getting ready to watch his red-hot Winnipeg Jets club take on the lowly Los Angeles Kings.
These are heady days for the team Cheveldayoff has put together. The Jets are on top of both the ultra-competitive Central Division and Western Conference, and knocked off the league’s top outfit, the Tampa Bay Lightning, 48 hours earlier.
But don’t expect the architect to start patting himself on the back. In a wide-ranging interview with the Free Press prior to puck drop Tuesday evening, Cheveldayoff made it clear that the goal is not to just have a solid regular-season or simply make the playoffs. This is a team that is built to win now, with perhaps the biggest window of opportunity they might have staring them directly in the face.
"For as much has been accomplished in the first 33 (now 34) games, it’s really minuscule to what the challenges that are left in front of us are. There’s a lot of real estate left; we have to make the playoffs, you have to approach each and every game with that mentality. And approach it on a daily basis," said Cheveldayoff, now in his eighth season as general manager.
"It’s a very difficult league to win in."
Those words would prove to be especially true as the Jets dropped a surprising 4-1 decision to the last-place Kings, who played what coach Paul Maurice called "a hell of a game" in shutting down a high-flying Winnipeg squad that had won five straight games and nine of their past 10.
Cheveldayoff discussed a number of topics — from Kristian Vesalainen to the playoff format, to concussion protocol, to the several young players on his roster needing rich new contracts, to the possibility that he'll be presented with an offer sheet by another GM .
As usual, he played his cards pretty close to the vest, mastering the political art of saying plenty without saying a whole lot. Still, the GM doesn’t hold court often, so it’s noteworthy when he does, especially in a season where expectations are higher than ever.
"I think internally the guys have done a good job of just focusing on the day-to-day challenges. There’s been a lot of them. There’s a lot of different grinds that happen throughout the season, be it travel, be it practices, be it injuries that guys have to kind of get through and find different levels," he said.
It’s not just the number of wins the Jets have racked up, which have them ahead of where they were at this point last season, when they ended up with a franchise-record 114 points (52-20-10). It’s the way his team has found ways to come out on top, even when they’ve been far from their best.
'I guarantee you the tone of the question would be a lot different if we didn’t have him signed' — Cheveldayoff on Blake Wheeler
They’ve rallied late for victories, blown big leads and held on, won in tough environments and continued to excel even as their blue line took a beating with injuries.
"Yeah, there’s going to be lots of different challenges. It’s going to look differently on different nights. Paul (Maurice) talks about that at great length. There’s not kind of one way to go through an 82-game season. It is nice to know there are different ways. There’s different ways this team plays, there’s different ways to score goals, there’s different ways to defend," he said.
Cheveldayoff said he’s most impressed by the leadership he’s seen from core players such as Blake Wheeler, who signed a five-year contract extension just before training camp. Some suggested it was a risky move, given Wheeler is already at an age where most players start to decline, but it’s clear the GM doesn’t feel it was a gamble.
"Well, I guarantee you the tone of the question would be a lot different if we didn’t have him signed," Cheveldayoff said.
Translation: he’d be under fire right for allowing Wheeler to get to pending unrestricted free-agent status, and the captain’s 44 points through 34 games would likely have him in line for an even bigger payday, either from the Jets or another club courting his services.
"We were excited the day we signed him, and we’re even more excited now. Obviously he’s the leader of this team, he’s the captain of this team. His on-ice play speaks for itself. His off-ice leadership is something we get the benefit of seeing. How he’s helped this team to drive itself, and there’s one thing that he wants more than anything, and that’s to win a championship. That certainly rubs off on the group," said Cheveldayoff.
No more so than Mark Scheifele, the first-ever draft pick Cheveldayoff made for the Jets in the summer of 2011. At the time, his selection had many wondering "who?" as several more highly touted prospects were still on the board.
Now Scheifele is one of the game's elite two-way centres, a top-10 scorer in the league and the guy who often finishes what Wheeler sets up.
"Well when the scouts talked about what we’d be getting, they envisioned we would be getting a player that would be a complete hockey player. That would have high skill and high drive. They’re the ones that basically said this is the direction we want to go. And we’re very thankful that they had the foresight and the conviction to say it," said Cheveldayoff.
"We’ve benefited immensely on the personal side of it. Just on the type of person that he is, the way he approaches the game, the way he cares about the game, himself and his teammates. There’s lots of great players in this league, but we feel very fortunate to have one of the best players both on and off the ice."
Talk quickly turns to the next wave of players in his core, including pending restricted free agents Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and Jacob Trouba. All will need new, big-money deals next summer, which means a major challenge for the GM to keep the team under the salary cap without having to perform major roster surgery.
'There’s lots of great players in this league, but we feel very fortunate to have one of the best players both on and off the ice' — Cheveldayoff on Mark Scheifele
Can we expect extensions on any or all of those players prior to next summer? Don’t hold your breath hoping for some clarity.
"The business side of the game never stops," he said. "With respect to negotiations, we’ve never really got into it (publicly) with any player that we’ve had over the course of the different years with respect to talking about where things are at. At the end of the day, when there are announcements to be made, we make them, and the work that’s being done remains behind the scenes."
Failing to lock any of them up prior to July 1 would allow another team to present an offer sheet, something that is rarely done in the NHL. But why wouldn’t a team with cap space and draft picks to burn take a run at a generational sniper like Laine, offering him a king’s ransom that would put the Jets in a precarious position to match?
Cheveldayoff said he’s not worried about that possibility.
"Certainly it’s a tool that’s within the CBA and you plan accordingly. Patrik is a big part of this team, and is going to be a big part of this team moving forward. From our standpoint, we’re proceeding as business as usual. From a perspective of making sure you’re in good shape to match anything, you always do your due diligence so you’re in good shape to do that," he said.
The Jets had a rocky start this season with another young prospect in Vesalainen, who made the team out of training camp, quickly became a healthy scratch, was sent down to the Moose and then exercised his "out" clause to go back to Europe for the rest of the season to play in his hometown with Jokerit in the KHL. Now Vesalainen has declined to go play in the World Juniors for Finland, something the Jets had hoped he would do.
Still, Cheveldayoff insists the relationship with the 19-year-old winger is just fine.
"We’ve actually had quite a few eyes on him in Europe so he’s transitioned well over there, which is good. He’s going to play good minutes. When the ultimate decision was being made and he mentioned there was a possibility that he might stay with Jokerit instead of making the trip back over to North America to play in the World Juniors, it’s a decision that I’m sure he struggled with and we support him 100 per cent with his decision," said Cheveldayoff.
Speaking of Finland, Cheveldayoff said the week-long trip to Helsinki for the two-game Global Series with the Florida Panthers at the start of November is paying big dividends in ways the public likely didn't see.
"I think it was a real positive experience in a lot of ways. You always have the benefit of hindsight, I guess, to look back and see. Even in the moment at the time, there was lots of opportunities for the guys to be together, to bond, to have some fun, have some laughs. To begin to understand, to talk about and feel, how important it is to be a group in order to try and push and continue what we’ve started to build upon," he said.
"In today’s game, sometimes there’s not opportunities, sometimes you have to manufacture them. In this case there was a great opportunity for the guys to be together. I think, obviously the games we split, obviously we’d have liked to have taken both, but the reality is, from an off-ice perspective it did look like a real success."
'Patrik is a big part of this team, and is going to be a big part of this team moving forward. From our standpoint, we’re proceeding as business as usual. From a perspective of making sure you’re in good shape to match anything, you always do your due diligence so you’re in good shape to do that' — Cheveldayoff on signing Patrik Laine
The Jets have preached the draft-and-develop mantra from Day 1, and they’ve hit home runs with nearly all their top picks, so far. However, Cheveldayoff admits there’s an extra source of pride when some late-round gems materialize, as is the case this year with Mason Appleton and Sami Niku, who went in the sixth and seventh rounds, respectively, of the 2015 draft.
"It certainly underscores the whole entire process of the draft. And why the scouts go to the games they go to, why they beat the bushes the way they do, why they stand up in meetings and really express their passion for an individual player," said Cheveldayoff.
Winnipeg has stayed relatively healthy this season, but both Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Copp have been sidelined with concussions. There was some controversy in both cases.
Byfuglien, who was clearly dazed after a heavy collision along the boards, was allowed to return to the game when he passed the league's concussion protocol. But he was diagnosed with a concussion two days later and missed a handful of games.
Copp was knocked out of a game, missed the next three, returned for two, but experienced symptoms and has been out of the lineup since.
The two experiences raise some questions about whether the Jets, and the NHL, are handling concussions properly.
"I think the concussion protocol certainly is something that’s followed very stringently. There’s checks and balances in place that players, coaches, managers, doctors all understand the different parameters," Cheveldayoff said.
"In this game here, with respect to trying to forecast what happens a day from now, two days from now, three days from now, all you do is go with the information that you have right now. Ultimately the protocols that are in place, I believe, are in the best interest of everyone," he said.
Finally, there’s been plenty of talk around the NHL about possibly revamping the playoff system, particularly after No. 1 Nashville and No. 2 Winnipeg met in the second round last year.
Surprisingly, Cheveldayoff doesn’t support the idea, even if popular belief is that the Jets ran out of gas after surviving the Predators in seven games and moving on to the Western Conference final, where they took the first game and then lost four straight to end their remarkable run.
"It’s something that I think I’m comfortable with, the way the format is right now. For me, I’m more focused on making the playoffs," he said.
"It’s tough to make the playoffs. It’s tough to win and really tough to make the playoffs, so certainly that’s what the format we have right now underscores.
"It’s difficult to win a Stanley Cup. You have to go through the people that are in front of you. You don’t have to beat all 16 teams, you just have to beat the teams that you’re matched up against. In this game, there’s no guarantees. You finish on top of the league, or you finish eighth and make the playoffs and you’ve got as good a chance as anybody at winning."
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, December 19, 2018 at 2:02 PM CST: additional formatting
December 20, 2018 at 1:51 PM: Wheeler signed a five-year extension.