Winnipeg Jets GM talks Stastny, Hellebuyck, ‘patient’ approach paying off

David Amber caught up with Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff during day 2 of the NHL GM meetings.

Kevin Cheveldayoff has been general manager of the Winnipeg Jets since the team landed in Manitoba from Atlanta in 2011. And though the Thrashers hadn’t made the playoffs in four seasons, it was thought Cheveldayoff was inheriting a young team with the potential to grow into something special.

The Jets finished their first three seasons in that mushy middle: too bad to make the playoffs, too good to end up with a top pick in the draft. But Winnipeg did make the first-rounders it had count, taking Mark Scheifele seventh overall in 2011, Jacob Trouba ninth in 2012, Josh Morrissey 13th in 2013 and Nikolaj Ehlers ninth in 2014.

Each of those guys are core pieces in this season’s contending lineup, but it took time and patience from Cheveldayoff for the team to get here. It seemed every year fans and onlookers were calling on Cheveldayoff to do something to get his team to the next level, but after a few quiet trade deadlines the running joke was it was a “day off” for the GM.


Today, that approach is paying off in spades.

“I can’t make a young player play well at 18 or 19 if they’re not ready to play at 18 or 19,” Cheveldayoff told’s Dan Rosen at the GM Meetings this week. “But when they are ready I can give them the opportunity, I can make sure that I don’t sign a one-year deal on a player that’s maybe one and done as opposed to playing a player that might turn the puck over for the first two months but then in Month 3 and Month 4 you’re like, ‘Oh my goodness, look how good he is.’

“You want it to happen quicker, there’s no question about it. Certainly, for the veteran players on your team that you’ve talked to and said, ‘This is what we’re trying to do,’ you hope it can happen quicker.”

Scheifele, now a top-line centre, went back to major junior two years in a row after being picked. Once he arrived in the NHL it wasn’t an immediate rise to stardom, as it took him until his third full season to hit 20 goals and 50 points. Morrissey was similarly returned to junior twice before becoming one half of one of the NHL’s most underrated defensive pairs with Trouba, while Ehlers went back once and wasn’t on the Calder Trophy radar in his first season. This year, he’s on track to hit 30 goals.

Another key to this build has been that Cheveldayoff and his team of scouts have hit on a few post-first-round picks as well, including Adam Lowry (second round), Andrew Copp (fourth round) and Tucker Poolman (fifth round). Their still-developing 2015 draft prospects may prove to be the best yet.

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But, for this year’s team and possibly contending Jets lineups for years to come, the most important pickup was Connor Hellebuyck, who Cheveldayoff nabbed 130th overall in 2012. He’s a perfect example of a young player who wasn’t quite ready for the opportunity given to him a year ago, but the GM refused to give up on. Cheveldayoff signed veteran Steve Mason for two years to serve as a veteran “safety net” for the young goalie, and as a stop gap until hopefully one of Eric Comrie or Mikhail Berdin is ready for a backup job.

Hellebuyck has been one of the better netminders in the entire NHL this season, which Cheveldayoff credited to the 24-year-old’s summer training and coming into this season prepared with an understanding of the rigours of an 82-game NHL schedule.

“You’re talking about a player who checked off every box coming up from college, winning the [Mike] Richter Award, going to the world championship and being a very good player in the world championship, going to the American Hockey League and playing very well, coming up initially and playing very well in his first 15-20 games,” Cheveldayoff told Rosen. “Now it’s that next hurdle, it’s that, ‘You want to take control of this team, well, take control of this team.’ Kudos to him.”

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All of these players coming of age and taking on leading roles have meshed with the Thrashers-era players still around, including Bryan Little, Dustin Byfuglien and, best of all, Blake Wheeler, who himself has bloomed late into a superstar. If Cheveldayoff had rushed into action in the past and strayed from his plan, the formula on this team could be much different.

The Jets finally took off this season and it put the team in a position to be legitimate buyers at the deadline, clear contenders on Feb. 26 who were looking to do something to keep up with the depth additions made by the Nashville Predators and other Western Conference clubs.

Cheveldayoff was rumoured to be in hard on Derick Brassard, but when he was traded to Pittsburgh it didn’t appear there was a comparable and attainable centre on the market. The GM told Rosen he was prepared at that time to be silent again at the deadline and move on with what he already had rather than make a deal just to be active. Then, on the night before the deadline, rumours began swirling that St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong could turn into a seller and, suddenly, UFA-centre-to-be Paul Stastny slipped into the rental market.

It was finally time for the Jets GM to swing for the fences. Since he had picked five times in the first round over the past three years, and seven of his own first-rounders were on this year’s pro roster, Winnipeg’s 2018 pick was expendable. It was an expensive move to make but worth it for the team that seemed to be building up to that moment.

Cheveldayoff moved a 2018 first, 2020 fourth and prospect Erik Foley for the 32-year-old Stastny, who has been the perfect complement to young linemates Ehlers and Laine.

“I think he’s fit in in a lot of ways,” Cheveldayoff said to “For starters, once he got here Mark Scheifele got hurt again, but I think it gave us another player in our room with 800 games with National Hockey League experience, 50-plus games of playoff experience. He’s a real, real serious pro, a real, real serious athlete. There are players that play the game for a long time that are good, good players, but then there are players who are very serious and students of the game that with a group like ours, as young as we are, can help teach just by the very fact of what they do on a daily basis.”

Though the Jets are still young and appear to be just at the point where their Stanley Cup window is opening, you could argue Cheveldayoff’s toughest decisions are still ahead of him as Winnipeg begins to contend with the salary cap. Hellebuyck is an RFA this summer, as are partners Trouba and Morrissey. Laine will be chasing big money after next season, while Ehlers walks into a new contract paying him $6 million against the cap in 2018-19.

How Cheveldayoff navigates the turbulence will determine how long this window stays open, as will the development of future youngsters, including the likes of Kristian Vesalainen, Sami Niku, Logan Stanley and others. The key in the salary cap era has always been the ability to keep plugging in cheap, young, productive players as older vets move out, and the Jets have a recent track record of being successful at that.

In the meantime, through patience and persistence, Cheveldayoff has put together one of the deepest and most exciting NHL teams. They’ve been able to overcome injuries to key players all season, which their depth has them prepared to handle. Today, the Jets aren’t thinking about next year’s team, but instead believe they could win it all in 2018.

“There’s a sense of a real good team bond, and that’s why we weren’t going to just go get another player for the sake of getting a player at the deadline if it didn’t fit,” Cheveldayoff said. “Our group is a tight group. They’ve accomplished, or gotten to where they’ve gotten to this point, because of them. It’s not because of luck. They’ve earned it, and I think that’s what is going to keep fuelling them.”

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