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The men at the controls of the Winnipeg Jets say the severe turbulence of the 2019-20 season took a toll but didn’t damage the structure and stability of the NHL team.
Head coach Paul Maurice and his boss, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, both acknowledged Thursday the team’s exit from the post-season before it really started was a colossal disappointment for the organization.
The Jets were dumped 3-1 by the Calgary Flames in a best-of-five qualifying series, culminating with a 4-0 defeat before an empty Rogers Place in Edmonton. Top-line centre Mark Scheifele and scoring winger Patrik Laine went down with injuries in Game 1 and were sidelined for the rest of the series.
Posted: 13/08/2020 7:00 PM
Kevin Cheveldayoff didn't look, or sound, like a guy with the weight of the world on his shoulders as he held his annual end-of-season chin wag with local media on Thursday. The Winnipeg Jets general manager was calm, cool and collected during a nearly 45-minute session that covered plenty of ground.
But make no mistake: while we may not have seen him sweat — or anything close to the public hand-wringing we've seen from angry executives in other NHL markets this week such as Toronto, Minnesota and Pittsburgh — Cheveldayoff's seat should be plenty hot these days given the current state of his hockey club.
The loss of Scheifele was another punch to the gut for a squad that took plenty of hard knocks over the course of, arguably, the most unique NHL campaign in history — owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For Maurice, the overarching theme from his sixth full season behind the bench in the Manitoba capital was his club’s unwillingness to quit.
"You know what, there were so many days that what you were left with was an inspired feeling about the character of a lot of the people that you had. There were so many — and it was so well documented — so many events that were unexpected and could have been catastrophic in a lot of ways, but the players didn’t let that happen," said Maurice, who spent about 40 minutes with the media by video conference.
"We had some losses this year that you walked off the bench and you thought there wasn’t much left for your hockey club to do. And then you had some, in the end, where you thought you could have or should have been better. But I’m going to look at this as a year of great resilience by that group and I’m really, really proud of the way these guys continued to fight in situations that, understandably, would have slowed them down, but it didn’t. They kept fighting. That will be what I’m left with."
Over the summer, the Jets blue line was levelled with the departures of Jacob Trouba (a trade to the New York Rangers for pleasant surprise Neal Pionk), Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot (both to free agency).
Then, before training camp even started, Finnish-born skaters Sami Niku and Kristian Vesalainen were shaken up by a motor vehicle collision as they headed in for their physicals. Crucial performer Dustin Byfuglien quit the game. Mason Appleton broke a bone in his foot while tossing around the pigskin before the Heritage Classic in Regina. Bryan Little was knocked out by friendly fire from the stick of Nikolaj Ehlers in November and might never play again.
Then, the global threat of the coronavirus forced the league to shut down in March and restart with a restructured playoff format earlier this month — a major hurdle all teams had to handle.
Winnipeg finished the abbreviated regular season fourth in the Central Division (37-28-6), buoyed by the sensational goaltending of Vezina Trophy candidate Connor Hellebuyck, a patchwork defensive crew that performed above expectations and a highly skilled top-six forward group.
Speaking during his own video session, Cheveldayoff expressed his admiration and respect for the group, despite its qualifying-round failure.
"I’m real proud of this group, real proud of the leadership of this group, real proud of the way that the players handled the adversity from Day 1 of Part 1 of the season right until the final buzzer," Cheveldayoff said.
"Same with the coaching staff. Whatever adversity was thrown at them, it was more about what do we have to do now?
"How do we evolve from this and go from there? The results aren’t what you would like, but that’s what you’re dealt with in pro sports sometimes here. It’s about moving forward."
The Jets organization has always been a mutual admiration society, from top to bottom, loyal almost to a fault. But it’s difficult to poke holes in the GM’s lofty grading of Maurice and his staff — Jamie Kompon, Charlie Huddy and Wade Flaherty — in such a topsy-turvy season.
"We didn’t get the job done that we all set out to do. But under the circumstances, they’ve done an ‘A’ job for me. They’ve done everything that I could have asked them to do, you know, from the standpoint of, they didn’t look me in the eyes and say, ‘You know, Chevy, I do this tonight with this group.’ They looked me in the eyes and said, ‘We’ll do whatever we can, we understand the situation here and that’s what we’re going to do here,’" said Cheveldayoff.
The two members of the Jets brass faced a slew of questions during their final interviews before the late-summer off-season. Here’s a sampling of soundbytes:
Maurice: "Kyle Connor had an exceptional regular season this year... there’s just not a lot of times that you’re grabbing Kyle and saying, ‘Hey, you know your last three or four games haven’t been very good, what’s going on?’ He’s kind of turned that corner. Andrew Copp made a huge step forward. He’s always been a very, very bright defensive player. His defensive reads are elite, but he’s added in another half-step to his game through hard training. He’s a little bit quicker. Now you’re starting to see the hands develop."
Maurice: "This year was, I’m going to rate, as top-three years that I’ve had in this league and I’ll include my staff on that. We did a fantastic job surviving what we went through. (It’s) very difficult in this league to develop and attempt to win at the exact same time, rarely does it happen. And we’ve had many good, young players who have come in and their games continue to get better and better, and you would have lots of confidence and faith that would continue going forward."
Maurice: "You’ll separate the two things, the person and the player. From a player point of view, we would absolutely now have to plan going forward that he wouldn’t be a player, because we’ve been doing that since his injury. As a person, you want a perfect life for everybody, you want perfect health and you want to be able to enjoy your life. For Bryan, from the Winnipeg Jets and from me personally, I want his life to be great, and if that means he doesn’t step on the ice again then that’s what I want."
Cheveldayoff: "It’s easy to say you want to get bigger, you want to get stronger, you want to get faster. But the pendulum, you’ve got to be careful how you try to look at that. I think for us, when we assess a player, you’re assessing a lot of it on character, you’re assessing a lot of it on compete, assessing a lot of it on what elements that person brings to that organization when you’re bringing people in. To sit here and say our goal is to get bigger, stronger, tougher, our goal is to get pieces that fit and will complement the pieces we have in place already."
Cheveldayoff: "Getting into the top-10 class, there’s some really good, talented players there I think that are going to be there for us. I think we’re going to get a good player. Sitting here right now and understanding as you’re drafting an 18-year-old person, forcing a young player just because you might have a hole in your organization is not the best way in all cases to build your organization. Now, if that player forces himself onto the team, then you take a good hard look at it."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).
Updated on Thursday, August 13, 2020 at 9:08 PM CDT: Adds photo
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