WINNIPEG -- The goal posts are moving in terms of expectations, that window to contend is reopening and it’s up to the Winnipeg Jets organization to ensure that the off-season actions match the year-end Zoom conference words.
Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and head coach Paul Maurice presented a united front on Friday, emphasizing that a trip to the final eight for a bubble team represents progress after consecutive early exits from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, while acknowledging further steps are required for this group to make it where they ultimately want to go.
The road map to achieving that goal is sure to include a number of potholes to navigate -- including the Seattle Kraken expansion draft and restricted free agent deals to get done for core pieces Neal Pionk and Andrew Copp -- but there were some bread crumbs provided that might lead folks to uncover at least part of what that path could look like.
But first, how does Cheveldayoff assess this past season?
“Well, if you’re looking for a black or white type of situation, success or failure, I do deem this a success. But if you look at it from an ultimate end goal, we’ve got to get better, no question about it,” said Cheveldayoff. “We have to find ways. It’s something you challenge yourself with all the time. You’re never truly satisfied or truly successful in your own mind unless you do win the Cup, and I’ve been fortunate to be on that side of it where you do get to say, ‘Hey, we did it.’
“But more so than not, there’s times where you say, ‘We’ve got to get better’ and we’re going to have to spend all summer and approach training camp in that same fashion. As a group, as an organization, you’re always striving for that.”
At the top of that wish list is an upgrade to the defence corps, and both Cheveldayoff and Maurice openly spoke about the need to improve at that position -- which was described by the head coach as “thin.”
It will be fascinating to see which direction the Jets go in trying to achieve that goal.
Is it throwing a bunch of money at a high-end pending UFA like Dougie Hamilton or is it putting a package together to try and pull off a blockbuster deal to bring back a top-pairing guy to play with Josh Morrissey?
Will the Jets have two holes to fill on the back end or just one after the expansion draft passes?
Naturally, the subject of internal improvements was discussed, with Maurice suggesting Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg are facing a “stacked” left side as they look to become NHL regulars in the fall.
Stacked is a relative term and while it’s possible one of Heinola or Samberg might move over to the right side, the revealing part of the discussion surrounds the question of whether or not Maurice would be comfortable having those two rookies and Logan Stanley among the top-six next season.
“That's a challenge, but not a negative one. I can't put three left-handed defenceman in their best position to succeed at the same time,” said Maurice, noting that integrating two young players at the same time is manageable. “I'm not sure that you see that, where you play all your kids and win. So we develop them here very, very well. And we'll bring them in and we've got to find the right mix to maximize their skill set.
“Fortunately, we have three really good left-handed defenceman who, none of them were in our lineup at the start of the year, and they will eventually work their way in.”
If the Jets are not willing to use all of Stanley, Heinola (whose entry-level contract will slide to next season because he only suited up in five NHL games) and Samberg right out of the gate next fall -- provided they do enough to win the jobs -- then it’s incumbent upon Cheveldayoff to use one of those players as currency to acquire an experienced D-man with term to help bridge the gap between the depth up front and on the back end.
Of course, Stanley has to still be on the roster and not claimed by Seattle - if he’s not protected by the Jets instead of Dylan DeMelo, whose loss in the Montreal Canadiens series only reinforced his value after he was limited to 29 seconds of action in Game 1 before departing with a groin injury.
The Jets have made a significant investment in the development of Stanley, the 18th overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft and his move up the depth chart this season is a testament to the work he put in.
On the flip side, the Jets inked DeMelo to a four-year, $12-million deal last October and, along with his significant commitment, he was the partner Morrissey played his best hockey with -- even if they didn’t spend much time together this season until the opening round series with the Edmonton Oilers.
If there is some indecision by the time July arrives, would the Jets not simply make a side deal with the Kraken to ensure both DeMelo and Stanley remain in the fold?
That remains a possibility, but Cheveldayoff was asked directly about what he learned from the Vegas Golden Knights expansion draft in 2017 and hinted that moving pieces to protect others could be problematic.
“In general, as management, it doesn’t come as a surprise now. The rules are the same as they were for Vegas coming in. You’ve known that for a while now,” said Cheveldayoff, noting the status of veteran centre Bryan Little remains up in the air but that he has still not been given medical clearance to return from the head injury he suffered in November of 2019. “There’s probably a greater acceptance by managers to know that you are going to lose a good player. It is what it is, so will there be the volume of side deals and trades and non-trades that happened in the past? I guess it remains to be seen, but every situation is going to be different.
“Every organization is going to approach things differently, depending on their cycle and what they have coming from within their system to augment or develop a player to fill that hole. It will be an interesting time. It’s an important piece and we’ll spend a lot of time looking at our situation as well as others, and see what may or may not transpire there.”
There’s plenty of time to debate what the protected list is going to look like next month.
In the meantime, what does Maurice have in mind for a core group whose internal belief remains high?
Maurice used a golf analogy in the summer of 2019 to describe the first-round exit at the hands of the St. Louis Blues, equating the experience to hitting a ball in the water -- something that could be corrected and not require a systems or personnel overhaul.
Does he feel like it’s time to change the grip now?
“There have to be adjustments in the way we view the game. That changes with your group,” said Maurice. “I’m not sitting here saying that where we finished, we were the No. 1 contender and we were right there. In some ways we overachieved in certain areas of our game.
“I don’t know about changing your grip, but we have to keep forward motion. I thought we -- I don’t want to say lost traction last year -- but with all the changes we faced last year, we made a move sideways, and I thought we got back to forward motion again this year.”
Much of that inertia begins with having an elite goalie in Connor Hellebuyck, who is under contract for three more seasons before he can become an unrestricted free agent.
Maurice made no apologies for leaning on his goalie, but reiterated the plan is to make life a bit easier for him next season.
“Connor Hellebuyck’s on our team, we drafted him. He does mask a lot of the challenges that we’ve had, especially in the last two years, for sure,” said Maurice. “And we’re going to try to address that and fix that in how we play. We’re looking for that improvement on our back end, but we all know that. This isn’t sneaking up on us and we know that our goaltender can stop a lot of pucks, we’ve got to give him a chance to be the difference in the game.
“The forward group is maturing into a really good forward group. Our back end has to catch up to our goaltending. But not everybody has all the pieces all the time, so we’re in that process of building that.”
Upgrading the personnel in front of Hellebuyck is an essential part of doing that.
“We’ve got a good, strong, coming of age core. There is still some work to do, for sure,” said Maurice. “This is the first group of guys we’ve had that were completely committed to Winnipeg, to the Jets. That’s an important step. The next step is interesting. The next step gets you into the middle part of the playoffs. You get to the eight. That’s where we are now with the group we had, the situation we faced, that’s where we got to. A lot of really good things had to happen for us to get there.
“The next stage is, I guess, feeling like you would be if you’re Colorado and you’re one of those teams that the media picks. The general idea is ‘these guys are in their prime now.’ I don’t think we were quite there this year. I don’t think that was the sense going in. But you’re going to get a little stronger in all areas, a little more mature in all areas. Then you start being thought of as one of those teams. We’re pretty darn close to that. Maybe closer to it now than we have been at any time.”
How much closer will the Jets be after the off-season?
That’s the question Cheveldayoff and his staff will be looking to answer before training camp arrives.
In terms of what role dealing with the extraordinary circumstances and challenges created by playing in a pandemic could play in the decision-making process, Cheveldayoff provided a thoughtful response.
“I don’t think you want to underestimate the different things that might have occurred because of COVID-19, but you have to look critically at a lot of different things,” said Cheveldayoff. “There are going to be changes on this team. There are some young guys that are going to be potentially knocking on the door. There are some veteran players that may or may not be back.
“There are lots of different areas where you’re going to spend time evaluating and give certain weight to the unusual circumstances we were under. But I do think you can’t just gloss over things because of that.”