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Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff hopes the next chapter in a memorable season for his squad will produce a storybook finish.
With contract disputes, the surprise retirement of Dustin Byfuglien and a seemingly never-ending wave of freak injuries and illnesses, there’s no question the Jets’ resolve had already been tested before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down play in mid-March. Now they’re back, preparing for a unique 24-team Stanley Cup tournament in which they’ll have to win five playoff rounds instead of the traditional four, playing games in an empty arena in the hub city of Edmonton.
"One thing that has been interesting is we’ve been made for this. This is what we’ve had to deal with from Day 1 of our first training camp this year. There have been numerous dips and dives and curveballs and injuries and you name it that we’ve had to deal with and our guys have dealt with it well," Cheveldayoff said as summer training camp began Monday.
He bolstered his lineup before the February trade deadline in the form of centre Cody Eakin and defenceman Dylan DeMelo, and the Jets responded with a four-game winning streak at the time of the indefinite pause. Now, the team’s 37-28-6 record this season is in the books and they will start the playoffs the same as everyone else: at 0-0-0.
"What you were doing back in March, I don’t know that it has much relevance right now. I think you need to understand that you’ve got to develop new chemistry here and you’ve got to do it quickly and efficiently," said Cheveldayoff.
This is the time of year when the GM of an NHL team should be putting his feet up for a bit, with the playoffs, draft and free agent frenzy all in the rear-view mirror. Now, all of that remains on the horizon, the product of last week’s return-to-play protocols along with a four-year extension to the collective bargaining agreement that brings labour peace through the 2025-26 season.
Cheveldayoff hasn’t had much time to digest it all, as attention quickly turned to formulating an expanded training camp roster. A total of 18 forwards, 12 defencemen and three goaltenders have been invited to participate, and the Jets will have to cut that down to 31 before they head west later this month.
One lingering question: why did nearly all Jets players wait until the last couple weeks to return to Winnipeg, which is the safest NHL market in the league when it comes to COVID-19 numbers? The majority remained at their off-season homes. As a result, the Jets didn’t open their facility for voluntary skates until late last week, nearly a month after most other teams had done so.
Cheveldayoff cited federal restrictions that mandated a 14-day quarantine upon return to Canada until recent changes cut that time in half, provided players pass four tests.
"Phase 2 is a voluntary type of phase and lots of players were in different places and circumstances. There were a lot of questions as to how the quarantines would apply and how, in the ever-changing world, everyone was hoping — to a certain extent — things would continue to change favourably in every phase, whether it was provincially or if it was federally, whatever. It seemed to bring new information on a daily basis," he said.
"We were in contact with them, but they chose to continue what they were doing on their own until we had a more fulsome group."
The delicate balancing act over the next two weeks is to have the players step on the gas without suffering injuries after the lengthy layoff. Monday’s skate was not of the intense variety but head coach Paul Maurice said that will quickly change.
"I think there was an anticipation this would have kind of a summer hockey feel, a casualness about it, but it didn’t feel like that. The players were really focused on the hockey part of it. Maybe for them it’s just a relief to get to something that they do understand, something that is normal. And what was going on on the ice was very normal," said Maurice.
"We wanted to take it out of the garage a little bit slowly. Certainly, we’re going to amp up very quickly here. The key thing that I took away from today is you can tell whether your team wants to be on the ice or not. There’s practices where you bring them out and nobody wants to be there but they wanted to be on the ice. They look like they want to play. They look like they want to compete."
Unlike the usual playoff situation where you may not know your opponent until a few days before the puck drops, the Jets have known they’re facing Calgary in the best-of-five qualifying round for quite some time.
"There’s a great thing there but there’s a danger there, too. We want to pick the things that we’re good at, focus on that, make sure our game is right and, clearly, you want to have a plan for the style of game. I don’t know what the percentages are but at the end of the day, there’s a big chunk of hockey that’s the same. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, you’ve got to do a number of things well to expect to win, regardless of your opponent," said Maurice.
Staying focused on the task at hand, at a time when there are plenty of potential distractions given the unusual circumstances, will be another challenge.
"The team that wins the Stanley Cup, all of those hardships are going to be the memories. That’s what they’re gonna remember. I don’t even know what those hardships are yet, to be honest with you. I know they’re coming but I haven’t seen it yet. All of the difficulties that you’re going to have to win the Stanley Cup this year will be the best part of the memories," said Maurice.
A real page-turner, no doubt.
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