WINNIPEG -- Since becoming the general manager of the Winnipeg Jets, Kevin Cheveldayoff has rarely made a habit of making bold proclamations or revealing his next steps.
So when it comes to mining any clues for what the Jets might do during what could very well be Cheveldayoff’s most important week on the job, reading between the lines was definitely a requirement following a Zoom session with reporters that lasted more than 35 minutes.
With the Jets holding the 10th overall selection in the first round of the 2020 NHL Draft that begins on Tuesday, there was plenty of chatter about the type of players available and where they might eventually fit in.
But the topic that was top of mind for many continues to be the trade rumours swirling around Finnish forward Patrik Laine.
Cheveldayoff was asked directly about what level of interest he’s had from other teams and his answer was consistent to how he’s handled similar queries about Jacob Trouba and Evander Kane -- and any other player who has been in demand over the years.
“I guess it's an easy question to tell you I'm really not going to discuss any individual players with respect to their availability or their interest level from other teams,” said Cheveldayoff, who was just getting started. “These type of situations, when you're having conversations with other teams and other managers, I think you have to be able to have free-flowing conversations in order to fully discuss and digest wants, desires and needs from every team. As a manager, you're always open to listening. Obviously there's a certain level of, I guess, conversation regarding every player on any team at any point in time. To give you percentages or anything like that with respect to any player on our team, it's really premature.”
Cheveldayoff also understands why other GMs would be calling to ask about someone like Laine if the perception was that he might be available.
“It’s just the way the game is, with respect to looking at all your different options,” Cheveldayoff said. “That’s what you’re supposed to do when you’re looking at trying to improve a team. There’s certain things that are behind closed doors that are between manager and manager. I’m not privy to give out those kinds of conversations.
“But in an industry like pro sports, there’s always going to be conversations of names of players that, for one reason or another, get brought up. Every team has needs, every team has wants, every team has holes, every team has different financial situations with respect to the cap. Teams that everybody thinks obviously must be interested in this player or this player or this player, sometimes those teams don’t even make a phone call. It’s the nature of the industry that everybody gets talked about.”
After consecutive early exits since a 2018 run to the Western Conference final, Cheveldayoff enters this week with an opportunity to both improve and alter his roster.
While still believing strongly in the core group, it’s apparent some reinforcements are required to return the franchise to contender status.
That’s where being active in trades and free agents comes in.
“You're trying to add some pieces in here that will give you a good opportunity to move forward,” said Cheveldayoff, noting his interest in bolstering the centre and defence positions. “We have a real strong core. You look at the talent we do have on the top end of our forward group, it's very strong. You look at our goaltending situation, obviously it's very strong. We have a couple of young players that are going to turn pro in (Ville) Heinola and (Dylan) Samberg that we're excited that now they're in that pro phase and that they're opportunities and options for us to continue to grow with.
“There's obviously desires to be active in the free-agent market and desires to potentially be active in the trade market, if something is there that makes sense that makes our organization better. The off-season is when you get an opportunity to try and (make) some of these changes. But again the lure simply of relying on free agency where lots of money, lots of term gets thrown around in those times, there's an impact that lasts well beyond Oct. 9 that you have to truly understand.”
Toss in a flat salary cap of $81.5 million and a pandemic that is impacting the economics of most if not all franchises, and there still seems to be a bit of uncertainty regarding the full impact on the market for both players and teams when it comes to the upcoming transactions.
“It’s difficult, in the sense that obviously we don’t have the interviewing period prior to free agency like we normally do,” Cheveldayoff said. “Outside of your own free agents, you don’t have a sense of what that marketplace may or may not be. It is a little bit different. Obviously, we know the economic landscape now and moving forward. So when you’re signing players to more than one year, you have to take those kind of situations into consideration as well. You have to be able to project.”
Never mind that plenty of teams could be operating under an internal cap that’s much closer to the floor than the ceiling.
Given the size of the market, could the Jets could be one of those teams?
Cheveldayoff isn’t expecting to have to reduce his budget, though the uncertain future regarding centre Bryan Little (who hasn’t played since suffering a head injury on Nov. 5) remains.
“It's going to be an interesting situation. Obviously, we're still dealing with Bryan Little's situation with respect to his injury, so that's a dynamic that we are dealing with and certainly trying to get a better understanding,” Cheveldayoff said. “When you get into a situation like ours where you're going to be a team that is either at the cap or close to the cap and has to use LTI if that becomes a situation for us, the cap changes. The dynamics of how you actually have to use the cap does change. But specifically as far as our organization, there's been no change in philosophy with respect to spending to the cap if the possibility of acquiring the right people or players are there.”
One of the suggestions being made when it comes to roster upgrades is that the Jets should be among the teams preparing an offer sheet for someone like Tampa Bay Lightning centre Anthony Cirelli.
Since the Jets have some cap room and the Lightning are in a cap crunch, it’s a logical conclusion - and one that several other teams will probably be examining as well.
Cheveldayoff didn’t dismiss the option, he was happy to share a theory on why not many offer sheets are presented and even fewer of them end up working.
“Being on the other side where people were talking about potential offer sheets in the past, I think everybody has contingency plans,” said Cheveldayoff, referring to last off-season when some felt the Jets could be vulnerable to an offer sheet for Kyle Connor and/or Laine. “Obviously, offer sheets are part of the CBA and certainly something I think everyone is in tune with. But there's ways to get around an offer sheet as well with respect to trading other players or creating the cap space.
“You have seven days in a situation like that, if you ever did get offer sheeted, to make the necessary adjustments. So, any general manager that feels vulnerable to that has contingency plans in place. I think that's probably one of the reasons why you don't see it as a pool that's used very much because it's not often successful.”
As for the 2020 NHL Draft, Cheveldayoff is excited about the prospects of adding a talented individual with that 10th overall selection.
Beyond the first three picks -- Alexis Lafreniere and some combination of Tim Stutzle and Quinton Byfield -- the next six guys selected before the Jets are on the clock are difficult to pin down.
With plenty of chatter surrounding Russian goalie Yaroslav Askarov moving into the Top-10 and possibly going as high as four or five, that could have an impact on another qualify prospect being available when Cheveldayoff and his staff are ready to announce their selection.
“It's an exciting time to look at the board and see a top-10 picking knowing we feel, at least, that there's a real good player there in that top 10,” said Cheveldayoff, whose club has only four picks in this draft -- 10th, 40th, 133rd and 164th. “There's a possibility that it could have multiple different combinations ahead of us. I think there's lots of different thought processes out there how it might unfold, so it's going to be an interesting first couple picks to see how things do unfold.
“As far as the number of picks, certainly at this point in time you always wish you had more. We'll see where things are at when we get close to No. 40. We think that there's a good cluster of players that we think should be in that area, and depending on who is there, we can maybe look at some different options in that regard, as well.”
One thing the Jets won’t be doing is altering their philosophical approach in the draft, especially not in the first round - where some folks are suggesting Winnipeg should focus on centre or defence specifically.
“We’re going to stick to our philosophy of certainly in the first round here of drafting the best player available,” Cheveldayoff said. “If you don’t do that, I think you can really make some mistakes in that avenue. That being said, as the later rounds of the draft do occur, the spread between the players is something that you kind of need to discuss slightly before your pick.”
Besides, it’s unlikely - though not impossible - for the 10th overall pick to step right into the Jets’ lineup next season anyway.
“It's hard to say. You've got nine opportunities of players getting picked in front of you, so it's hard to say who is going to be there at 10,” Cheveldayoff said. “Talking to the scouts and to people individually, it is interesting, we usually draft these kids in June and then they have a summer to work out and get bigger, and then they come to your training camp and you say, wow, look at that summer he's put in.
“Having said that, I'm not sitting here planning right now that the player we get at 10 is going to be pegged to step into the lineup right away. I'd rather let that player make that decision if and when training camp starts and we go from there.”
The Jets did take care of some business on Friday, retaining backup goalie Laurent Brossoit for a third season after he signed a one-year deal for $1.5 million (a modest raise).
Brossoit gets along well with Vezina Trophy winner Connor Hellebuyck and he’s motivated to return to the form he showed during his first season with the Jets.
“(Brossoit) is a great person and we think he’s a goalie that still hasn’t hit his ceiling in respect to getting better,” Cheveldayoff said. “He works extremely hard, he’s a great teammate and for us, with the cap and the cost-effectiveness of that tandem, we felt ... good. We’re excited that (Brossoit) has decided to stick with us as opposed to exploring what other options are out there.”
Brossoit realizes that Hellebuyck is a workhorse, but with a condensed schedule expected for the 2020-21 season, he’s hoping to increase his own games played from the 19 he appeared in during his second campaign with the Jets.
“That’s going to be what I’m hoping for,” Brossoit told reporters on Monday. “All of us backups are looking forward to the potential of a compact season and a lot of back-to-backs. It opens up a lot of opportunity for us.
"My first thought, coming back to Winnipeg, obviously you’re playing behind the best goalie in the world. And that could feel like some of your opportunity could get lost that way. But that’s why it felt like such a better fit. I think I will have a little bit more opportunity to show what I can do and to be able to do that in familiar territory behind Connor and working together and getting some more consistent starts, I’m really looking forward to that.
“I would say, for me, it’s being able to stay with the same team three years in a row. That familiarity goes a long way. I think having that trust from the coaching staff and the players and the training staff and everyone involved … feeling that over a long period of time goes a long way. A lot of the game is mental and to be in a spot, an environment, that’s super healthy and you feel good in, it goes a long way and I’m excited to be able to do that again.”