WINNIPEG -- If you thought Kevin Cheveldayoff was going to double down on his private and then public challenge to members of the Winnipeg Jets to change their lot in life after the coaching change was made in December, you came to the wrong place.
If you figured the general manager of the Jets was about to announce the beginning of a fire sale or to throw in the towel with 39 games left in the regular season, you likely walked away from his 29-minute media address on Wednesday afternoon feeling disappointed.
Although Cheveldayoff wasn’t suggesting the predicament the Jets currently find themselves in -- with five teams to leapfrog in order to grab hold of the second wild card in the Western Conference -- was anything but disappointing, the overriding theme of his mid-season assessment was one of optimism and belief.
Optimism that the six weeks left before the NHL trade deadline would provide enough time for the Jets to make things interesting enough that they could avoid being sellers as the market heats up.
At a time when questions have been asked about the current composition of the roster and whether or not some foundational moves might need to be made, Cheveldayoff reiterated his belief in the core pieces and the team he’s assembled.
“There are no excuses. As a group, we have to find a way,” said Cheveldayoff, whose club is back in action on Friday against the Dallas Stars. “I’m confident in this group and I know the level of leadership in that room, and I know the level of buy-in and I know the level of care.
“It’s been an emotional season. It’s had its ups, it’s had its downs. For us, the main focus has to be the stretch run, this next part of it. The trade deadline is always a unique situation for any organization to see where they are at and what the opportunities are in front of them. We’ve got a lot of hockey to play here before the trade deadline, so there's a lot of runway here for us still to do the things we need to do.“
If -- and as of now it remains an if -- the Jets are unable to claw back into the playoff chase, you can be sure that pending unrestricted forwards Andrew Copp and Paul Stastny are going to generate plenty of interest in trade talks.
Cheveldayoff wasn’t about to declare his intentions on that front, but if progress hasn’t been made in negotiations (the Jets’ GM said there haven’t been talks about new deals for Copp or Stastny so far this season), he’s going to have to listen to what offers are out there.
How difficult that decision will be should be much clearer once the Jets make it through this difficult stretch of games during the month of February and early March.
“I think it’s too premature to sit here and say where things are going to go. I think that you can fall into that trap very, very easily of trying to look too far ahead,” said Cheveldayoff, noting the Jets pro scouting meetings were held during the week leading into the NHL All-Star break. “To try and sit here and crystal ball where things are going to be and what your mentality is going to be when things are still six weeks away and so much hockey that we have in front of us, it’s tough to say right now.”
When it comes to blockbuster moves like the one made last year when Cheveldayoff traded forwards Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic to the Columbus Blue Jackets, the phone lines are open. However, the matter is a tad more complicated when you consider the Jets salary-cap situation, as one of the many teams dipping into the LTIR pool.
Dollar for dollar deals are increasingly challenging, especially in the days leading up to the deadline for the cap-ceiling clubs that are actually in contention.
If the Jets are going to make another deal involving a foundational player, it’s more likely that would take place during the offseason when the field of potential suitors would widen in the days and weeks leading up to the 2022 NHL Draft.
When asked for an assessment of the job interim head coach Dave Lowry has done taking over from Paul Maurice on Dec. 17, Cheveldayoff provided some praise while pointing out some of the challenging circumstances he’s dealt with along with the rest of the coaching staff.
Cheveldayoff doesn’t see an issue when it comes to the commitment to playing Lowry’s system or the style he’s asking the Jets to play, but he’s looking for better results as well.
As the conversation continued, there was ample discussion about young players like Cole Perfetti, Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg taking advantage of their respective opportunities.
There was also a glimpse into the not-so-distant future, with words spoken about some of the talented prospects on the horizon, including University of Minnesota Golden Gophers freshman forward and 2021 first-rounder Chaz Lucius and exciting Russian forward prospects Dmitry Rashevsky and Nikita Chibrikov
There was even a mention of 2018 third-rounder Nathan Smith, a skilled forward who was leading the NCAA in scoring before departing for the 2022 Olympics with Team USA.
The Minnesota State Mavericks have high expectations of their own and are chasing dreams of a Frozen Four title. It probably wasn’t an accident Cheveldayoff mentioned Smith would have been another one of the players in the organization to make their NHL debut with the Jets had he not returned for his junior season.
Cheveldayoff also mentioned having dinner with Smith on the road after a recent Jets trip. This is standard practice but also a clear sign they’d like the right-handed shooting centre to sign on the dotted line once his college season comes to a conclusion.
Speaking of important conversations, Cheveldayoff mentioned he recently touched base with Pierre-Luc Doubois' agent Pat Brisson.
Cheveldayoff didn’t divulge much about the conversation -- it’s simply not his style to negotiate publicly -- but the acknowledgement shows you that locking up Dubois to a long-term deal remains a top priority.
And while Cheveldayoff wasn’t interested in dealing with hypotheticals or what the fallout might be if the Jets don’t find a way to qualify for the playoffs, he’s fully aware of what is at stake during the stretch run.
If expectations aren’t met, changes are made and all facets of the organization will be under review.
At a time when accountability is essential, Cheveldayoff wasn’t afraid to look inward. But he also made it clear it was up to the players to get the job done.
“Well, obviously, when you’re the general manager it is always on your shoulders,” said Cheveldayoff. “You feel responsible for all aspects of the organization, whether it's the on-ice product here, the on-ice product with the (Manitoba) Moose, the level of prospects in your system, the lack of draft picks that you've had over the few years to try and chase it down. You wouldn't change anything of it, but there's always a price that you kind of pay."
“Ultimately, you have to look at the players. You want the coaches to put the right kind of game plan, the right kind of thoughts into things. Sometimes you have to give a pep talk, sometimes you might need to show them some video they might not like. That’s certainly the coach's job. But the players are the ones that go out there and do it, and that’s why I still feel confident in this group.”