WINNIPEG — Don’t expect the current quarantine rule to prevent Kevin Cheveldayoff from taking another swing, as long as the player fits and the price is right.
With his team coming off an impressive 3-1-1 road trip that included a 5-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs to pull within four points of first place in the North Division with three games in hand, the general manager of the Winnipeg Jets remains open to making a move prior to the NHL trade deadline.
But he won’t be forced into making one and he’s not about to confirm or deny any of the targets whose names have recently been linked to the Jets, including Mattias Ekholm of the Nashville Predators, David Savard of the Columbus Blue Jackets or even Travis Hamonic of the Vancouver Canucks.
Keeping his cards close to the chest is the standard disposition for Cheveldayoff and has been since he took the top job with the Jets back in 2011.
Known around the NHL for being more on the conservative or risk-averse side of things, Cheveldayoff hasn’t been afraid to make an important addition when opportunity knocks.
The Jets already swung one blockbuster deal this season, acquiring centre Pierre-Luc Dubois from the Blue Jackets for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic.
That’s prompted plenty of speculation there could be a sequel coming this spring.
What we know for sure is that the current climate — and the 14-day quarantine that would accompany it — won’t be an impediment, even if it’s obviously not optimal.
“You make a deal to make a deal and you live with the restrictions surrounding it. We’re in that type of environment that, obviously, we know there are different protocols,” said Cheveldayoff, who spoke for more than 23 minutes Monday. “It would be an easier transition if the rules do change, but I don’t know that that’s going to affect my decision on making a deal. Having said that, if I’m taking a player off of my roster to acquire a player, then I have to take that into consideration as well. There are different moves that might have to be made within the moves, as far as calling up a player and feeling comfortable that we have a player ready-made in our organization to step in.
“We’re dealing with a lot of teams this year that are in LTIR. That’s been something that has been a little bit different than in year’s past. There’s a great number of teams, because of the cap situation, that are in different circumstances in how they have to treat deals. Money in, money out, you hear that a lot in different conversations that you have. As far as the frequency and the volume and the players, I think a little bit of a difference also is there are no wildcards this year, it’s the top four in each division. I think that has come into conversations maybe a little bit more in some people’s minds, whereas you had those fights before at No. 5 and No. 6, now it’s just the top four. Other than that, I think you just try to approach things as normal. I think that’s what other managers are doing as well. So if you have an opportunity to make that kind of a trade where it’s cap-neutral or something like that, those are things that are being discussed as well. Like any trade deadline, there’s always that supply and demand type of equation that comes into play.”
Another consideration for Cheveldayoff and other GMs in the buyer category is how the moves could impact the 2021 Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft.
Depending on your vantage point, it could change the way certain teams approach whether they go after a player with term or prefer to pursue a rental.
The Jets already have a number of pending unrestricted free agents like Paul Stastny, Adam Lowry and Derek Forbort on the roster they’d like to extend, were there not other ramifications to consider.
That won’t mean those deals won’t get done, it simply adds another layer to the due diligence process — plus what a team would be willing to move out when it comes to asset management.
“The trade aspect of things is certainly something you have to consider if it comes to that point. If it's a rental, then obviously it doesn't come in as much. If it's a player on a multiyear deal, then potentially it does,” said Cheveldayoff. “Certainly it might determine how much of an asset you want to give to acquire a player if it puts you in those situations. But as far as the UFAs, we're hopeful that we can continue to do business as usual, whether it's in a pandemic or not. I think the hard part is the flat cap moving forward. That makes it very uncertain how to allocate the different resources. So as far as that goes, we'll try to make it as ‘business as usual’ as possible.”
The other popular topic circulating was that those quarantine restrictions might prompt general managers to look closely at making a pre-emptive strike to get a jump on the rest of those in the market.
That’s always a possibility, but the team selling often asks for teams to pay a premium in that scenario.
It’s a high-stakes staring contest and the line between holding out to get a better deal and missing out on the player a team covets is a fine one.
“The deal has to feel right from a fit perspective. But then the deal also has to feel right from an acquisition cost perspective,” said Cheveldayoff. “You weigh all those things and take them into consideration. Certainly, lots of things change on your individual team on a game by game basis and your needs also do change on a game by game basis.
“When you’re dealing in a cap world where, certainly in our situation, once we spend it, it’s gone. You have to make sure that you’re trying to take everything into consideration. The quarantine is something that we just have to deal with. If you can find that deal that you like and it fits, then I think you just do it whenever.”
As the Jets prepared to hit the midway point Monday night against the Montreal Canadiens, Cheveldayoff was asked what the biggest lesson he’d learned about his group so far this season.
“That’s an interesting question,” said Cheveldayoff. “When you’re talking (about the) first half of the season, you’re generally talking 41 games. And we’re doing this at 27, 28 games type of thing. I think there’s still a lot to learn about our group. I think this shortened season, there’s still that learning aspect that I think our team is going through. You see the different games we’ve kind of played over the course of the year.
“You know there’s a lot of growth that can still take place in your group. I think that’s exciting for me. We played essentially a month without Patrik Laine or Pierre-Luc Dubois. You add up those number of games that were missed because of Patrik’s injury and then Pierre-Luc’s quarantine and subsequent injury, I think the team is still learning a lot about itself.”
After getting through the 14-day quarantine and a lower-body injury he suffered just two games into his arrival with his team, Dubois looks like a guy who is starting to feel more comfortable.
Among his three goals and six points in 11 games since the move was made, Dubois has two overtime winners and appears to be finding some chemistry with linemates Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers, who leads the Jets with 14 goals.
“I think it’s getting better and better,” said Dubois. “System-wise, linemates and stuff like that, I was once told by a coach that the more you play with guys, the more you find their tendencies, whether it’s a defenceman and maybe some guys like reversing the puck more and some guys like skating it more, stuff like that.
“This year because of COVID definitely made it harder. I not only had to adjust to a new team, new teammates, linemates, everything, but also not playing for two weeks, then not playing for a week. I felt like the first couple of games I played, I had to get my legs back and then I felt like everybody’s at Game 20 of the season and I was at Game 4 or 5. Everybody took a step up in their pace and I was still chasing that pace. I feel like I can still improve a lot on a lot of things.
“I’m not necessarily happy with where my game’s at right now. But like I said before, it’s something that happens day by day, just practising, playing, being around the guys, watching film, stuff like that. That’s the only way to learn it.”
Cheveldayoff expects that with Dubois settling in, he’ll soon reach another level.
“We're really just scratching the surface with Pierre-Luc,” said Cheveldayoff. “And I think the three-week timeframe was difficult for him to deal with. But I really like how things are coming together with the options Paul (Maurice) has. Anyone in our top-six, you can probably mix and match now, and like a lot about those lines. Having two centremen that play the way that (Mark Scheifele) and Pierre-Luc play just gives us so much more from an options standpoint. And seeing Paul (Stastny) slide to the wing and adjust playing in that regard, it really gives us an opportunity that on any given night if something's not working or whatever, Paul (Maurice) can switch things up and try to make a real big impact. So excited to have Pierre-Luc in our lineup and I think it's just going to get better and better.”
Just over a year ago, Cheveldayoff told a group of travelling reporters in Denver that he felt it was essential to reward his core group that managed to embrace the mantra of staying in the fight after enduring a number of challenges — from the career-threatening injury to Bryan Little to the unexpected departure of Dustin Byfuglien and the subsequent overhaul of the defence corps — by making moves to bolster the Jets chances.
Which naturally begs the question, does he feel the same way this season as it battles for first place in a compressed season where the path to the conference final appears to be a bit more wide open?
“I think we’re always going to be active to the extent it makes sense,” said Cheveldayoff. “If we can find something that fits on both sides, we’re certainly looking at it. Game by game the needs change. So we’re always going to be looking to try to see if there’s a way of improvement. Sometimes the improvements are internal. Whether it’s a young player getting an opportunity to play with the Moose right now coming in and getting an opportunity to play with us and see what that does, those are things that are certainly in our minds.
“We’ve got some good young prospects that have shown, I think, that there are some things that they can add to our group. I like this group. I think that they’ve worked hard. I think they’ve shown a lot of different resilience throughout this pandemic. Certainly coming together as a team when you’re trying to stay six feet apart is a difficult challenge. But this group is a good group, they have a lot of fun playing the game, and if there’s an opportunity to make this group better, I’m certainly going to take a look at it.”
That’s exactly what Cheveldayoff should be doing and if the price is right, you can absolutely expect him to pull the trigger.