Kevin Cheveldayoff doesn't like to show his hand at the best of times, and the architect of the Winnipeg Jets had his classic poker face on Monday as he held a mid-season state of the union.

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This article was published 15/3/2021 (222 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

Kevin Cheveldayoff doesn't like to show his hand at the best of times, and the architect of the Winnipeg Jets had his classic poker face on Monday as he held a mid-season state of the union.

Might he be prepared to go "all-in" for his surging club, which enters play Monday night against Montreal with a 17-8-2 record and just four points out of first place in the Canadian Division? Not surprisingly, Cheveldayoff wouldn't bite, even as the Jets have been linked to the likes of some available impact defencemen such as Mattias Ekholm and David Savard with less than a month until the April 12 trade deadline.

However, I'll say it for him: This highly skilled, yet flawed squad that still gives up far too many chances in their own end of the ice deserves to be rewarded for their strong play to date with a big boost to the roster, specifically on the blue line.

I take you back to the last time we did one of these "hot stove" sessions, at the midway mark of a 2019-20 campaign that seems like a lifetime ago. It was late December 2019 when I sat face-to-face with Cheveldayoff in Denver, his team reeling from three straight losses (and losers of five of their past six) and quickly losing its grip on a playoff spot.

Cheveldayoff told me something that day which I reminded him about on Monday, this time as we met via Zoom due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was about his stated commitment to core players such as Blake Wheeler, Mark Scheifele, Connor Hellebuyck, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor and Josh Morrissey, who had all signed long-term in Winnipeg. 

As Cheveldayoff put it at the time, he made a promise: "We're going to try and win every year. We're not here saying 'Well, wait until next year.' At one point in our organization, we had to. Those guys had to buy into that waiting process."

True to his word, Cheveldayoff made a couple moves prior to last year's trade deadline, adding a top-four defenceman in Dylan DeMelo and some centre depth in Cody Eakin despite the fact they were only clinging to a wild-card spot. As history now shows, the Jets went on a nice run just before the season was paused in mid-March, and they couldn't recapture those good vibes in a four-game qualifying round playoff loss to the Calgary Flames inside the Edmonton bubble last summer.

Which bring us to today. Unlike last year, this isn't a Jets team that should simply be content with trying to stay above the playoff line and sneak into the post-season. They are a legitimate threat to win their division and make some noise, thanks to a Vezina Trophy winner in net and one of the deepest forward groups in the NHL. The primary area of concern is on the back-end, with many pundits believing the Jets are a solid add away from becoming a bonafide Stanley Cup contender.

Of course, those worries would be tempered somewhat if the Jets could string together more games like last Saturday's 5-2 victory over Toronto, in which they limited their high-scoring opponent to just three high-danger chances at five-on-five the whole game (after surrendering an incredible 34 combined over the previous two outings). If that can become the norm, rather than the exception, Winnipeg is a very dangerous team.

The obvious disclaimer to this unique season is that everyone is playing within the division during the 56-game season, which creates a more insular view than usual about how your team might stack up against the rest of the league. But the Jets have already proven they can more than hold their own north of the border. Get out of your division in the playoffs and you're a series victory away from playing in the Stanley Cup Final.

And so I put the question directly to Cheveldayoff: Don't you really owe it to the likes of Wheeler et al., especially in a season like this where it's looking like you have a real shot at success?

As expected, Cheveldayoff vaguely replied that they were open for business and ready to be active "to the extent it makes sense. If we can find something that fits on both sides, we’re certainly looking at it." But then he added something that definitely piqued my interest, suggesting help for their roster might be closer than anyone thinks. As in, already here in the city, albeit playing for the Manitoba Moose.

"We’ve got some good young prospects that have shown, I think, that there are some things that they can add to our group," said Cheveldayoff. He didn't mention them by name, but it's obvious he is talking about Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg.

Heinola, 20, is a puck-moving, offensive dynamo with four goals and six assists through 16 AHL games. Only two defencemen in the league have more points than him. For a Jets team that struggles to get the puck out of its own end at times, he checks off that box. Samberg, 22, is more of a stay-at-home type, and the rookie blue-liner just out of college is being given plenty of ice time and responsibility by Moose bench boss Pascal Vincent. So far, he has one assist this year and is a minus-one for the 7-7-2 squad

Which raises an intriguing possibility: Rather than break the bank and give up a high draft pick and/or assets for a trade deadline addition, why not first check if there's an internal answer to your perceived problems?

You'd think there'd be no time like the present for that, with veteran journeyman Nathan Beaulieu going down last week with an injury expected to keep him out for multiple weeks. Logan Stanley has taken his spot in the lineup, with Sami Niku the other healthy option on the roster right now.

If I'm Cheveldayoff and coach Paul Maurice, I'd be trying to find a way to get both Heinola (who played one solid game earlier this year on the top pair with Josh Morrissey) and Samberg (who has not made his NHL debut yet) a good look in the near future. 

This would also get around the potential headaches that will come with any trade, including a mandatory two-week quarantine if the player is coming from a U.S.-based team, plus the future roster impact given this summer's expansion draft. Since the Jets can only protect three defencemen, adding someone like Ekholm who has another year on his contract would mean exposing one of him, Morrissey, DeMelo or Neal Pionk to the Seattle Kraken.

The worst thing that happens is you decide Heinola and/or Samberg are not quite ready for prime time and you take another look at the open market.

Given his team's success so far, the high-end talent they possess and the fact the core isn't getting any younger, all eyes are now on Cheveldayoff to see if he might have an ace up his sleeve.

 

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.

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