WINNIPEG — With the roster renovation nearly complete, the goalposts are shifting and it’s time for the Winnipeg Jets core group to reward the general manager for the faith he’s shown in them.
While Wednesday was a mostly quiet one when it comes to free agency, Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff had already taken care of much of the heavy lifting in the days leading up to the floodgates opening for the annual spending spree.
One thing is certain: Cheveldayoff isn’t going to wake up Thursday morning with a case of buyer’s remorse after overpaying and outbidding one of his counterparts.
Instead of getting into a number of bidding wars when players hit the open market, Cheveldayoff opted to upgrade his defence via trade with the additions of Nate Schmidt and Brenden Dillon and choosing to bring back veteran forward Paul Stastny on a one-year deal.
Before watching Laurent Brossoit sign a two-year deal with the Vegas Golden Knights on Wednesday, Cheveldayoff placed his faith in Eric Comrie, signing him to a one-year, one-way deal to give him the backup job behind Connor Hellebuyck.
“If you could’ve had a wish list and just put it up on the wall, I don’t know if it could have fallen into place any better with how it complements the defence we have in place already,” Cheveldayoff said. “We kind of hit the boxes we needed to hit with these trades. Talking to the guys that are on the team here, over the last 24-48 hours, there is a level of excitement that is in their voices and in their thinking that we haven’t had since maybe the 2018-19 year.
“When we had to go through the (Dustin Byfuglien) situation, it took a hit on a lot of the players because they knew our team dynamic changed when you lose a player like that. But the level of excitement and the level of anticipation (for) the season, with these two guys added to our core, I had guys telling me they’re excited to go train, excited for the season. They believe and certainly, I believe in them.”
When you consider what former Jets blue-liners Tucker Poolman (four years, $10 million, $2.5 million AAV with the Vancouver Canucks) and Derek Forbort (three seasons, $9 million, $3 million AAV) got as free agents, it only reinforced the importance of the moves Cheveldayoff made in revamping the defence corps.
Schmidt and Dillon are players that would have either been out of the Jets price range or simply had too much competition for their services when they reach UFA status.
The Jets had been interested in both Schmidt and Dillon before — and that only heightened the sense of anticipation in acquiring them this time around.
Of course, the benefit for the Jets was that both the Canucks and Washington Capitals were looking to reduce payroll for other priorities and that’s what helped make Schmidt and Dillon available for future assets (in this case, draft picks).
Schmidt needed to agree to waive his 10-team, no-trade clause to complete the move and that’s where the Jets got an assist from Stastny — who made a Chamber of Commerce pitch and referred to Winnipeg as “Minnesota North” — and fellow former Vegas Golden Knights teammates Mark Stone, Ryan Reaves and Cody Eakin.
After taking some time to contemplate the decision — which included going out into the woods back home in Minnesota to collect his thoughts — Schmidt decided he was ready for this next challenge.
When Schmidt was asked about the full-court press made to help make him feel welcome, he was resolute in saying this decision had nothing to do with having a change of heart about either the city or the organization.
This was about coming to terms with his future and being traded for the second time in a span of nine months.
“Any time you have a big career change, I just want to run through it all, make sure they’re comfortable, I’m comfortable,” said Schmidt. “It’s something, when you look back at it, that’s really all that it was. I wasn’t like on Monday I said, ‘I’m not going,’ and Tuesday I said, ‘Ah, just kidding.’
“I went up to my hunting land, just chopping trees down and cutting some trails, just clearing your head a bit and processing everything and making sure you look at (if) it is going to be a great move for me, a great move for the team. Just needed a second, 24 hours, 48 hours, just to kind of decompress. It was a wild week with everything going on. You’ve seen what’s going on in the NHL this past week, it’s crazy.”
A discussion with Cheveldayoff about the direction the team is taking caught Schmidt’s attention.
“(Cheveldayoff) said ‘We want guys that want to be here and want to rock and roll and want to win.’ This is what we’re looking for, and that’s what I was looking for. That’s what you want as a player and that’s the idea going forward,” Schmidt said. “We have a great team, we have a great group of forwards, a fantastic goaltender, and now our defence is looking like a defence that could, in my opinion, help you win and go help you win the whole thing.”
During his lengthy session with reporters, Schmidt demonstrated his trademark high-energy personality and immediately showed accountability in discussing his disappointing past season with the Canucks.
“For me, I know that there’s a lot more to give. And I don’t really like the way I have played this past year,” said Schmidt, noting he expressed that sentiment in a discussion with Cheveldayoff. “I’m probably my harshest critic on how I play. I didn’t have my feet moving as much as I have in the years past, getting up into the play and being a little more in-your-face defensively.
“I’m a guy that wears my heart on my sleeve. The last time around (when he was traded by the Golden Knights to the Canucks), obviously it was a lot different. It was something that you feel a little bit — I don’t want to say blindsided — just shocked at what happened. This time around, you felt like maybe things weren’t working out and you’re trying to find a place that’s going to work and be excited about going to. That’s why we are where we are today. I’m excited about starting fresh with Winnipeg.”
The bottom line was that the Jets needed to make significant improvements on the back end and were able to achieve that goal.
While the blue-line additions were universally praised, there is an element of risk attached to the Comrie deal given his limited NHL action, but it’s a calculated one.
Comrie, chosen by the Jets in the second round of the 2015 NHL Draft, has enjoyed plenty of success at the American Hockey League level and became the Manitoba Moose franchise leader in wins last season, but this is his best opportunity to show he can handle the workload of a No. 2 in the NHL.
“Eric earned his time and his time has come,” Cheveldayoff said. “This player has worked hard. He’s gone through the trials and tribulations of being a top-end American Hockey League goaltender and trying to push past some of the veteran people that were in front of him. And he’s a great partner for (Hellebuyck). There’s a real, real strong chemistry between the two.
“(He’s) one of the players that earned the opportunity to be there.”
This isn’t to suggest Cheveldayoff’s job is done.
Cheveldayoff is still looking for some inexpensive and experienced forward depth and needs new deals for restricted free agents Neal Pionk, Logan Stanley and Andrew Copp.
Copp and Pionk are eligible to file for salary arbitration and due a raise at a time when the Jets cap space is limited.
Copp’s situation is complicated by the fact he’s one year away from pending unrestricted free agency.
Both players are part of the growing core and want to continue to be part of what the Jets are building.
“We love both players, and certainly, if we can find a way to do term deals with both of them, that would be the ultimate goal,” Cheveldayoff said. “Where it sits right now, how it will play out, it all remains to be seen. The cap is very real and our contract situation is very real. The good thing is we have our defence core locked up and locked in. But also, there’s fixed costs there now. A lot of the core is locked in, but there’s fixed costs there now.
“The reality of where our cap is today and what it is going to be moving forward, and again, we’re probably living in a flat-cap environment again next year, so when you’re doing future contracts, you have to take that into consideration. Our balance sheet looks much different than it did 24-48 hours ago.”
After a couple of seasons of being a bubble team, the Jets have made the necessary moves to put them in position to reclaim contender status. But trophies and banners aren’t handed out based on what teams look like on paper. So while the excitement that Cheveldayoff and the incoming players are feeling is understandable, expectations are on the rise.
With the roster already improved and Cheveldayoff doubling down on his belief in this core group, the only acceptable outcome for the Jets organization is taking a significant step forward when it comes to Stanley Cup playoff success.