WINNIPEG – The art of deflection was on display on more than one occasion and while Kevin Cheveldayoff wasn’t making bold proclamations about sweeping changes throughout the organization, he fully realizes running back the band for a reunion tour isn’t going to cut it.
Despite being armed with a three-year contract extension, Cheveldayoff has a clear handle on his priorities for the offseason – and that was well before centre Mark Scheifele made his eyebrow raising comments on Sunday afternoon.
Those words may have just expedited the process of his potential departure, even if Scheifele had yet to submit a formal trade request as of Monday afternoon, according to Cheveldayoff.
Even if the Jets reach the point where they would seriously entertain offers for Scheifele, who should garner plenty of interest given his offensive production and $6.125 million AAV for two more seasons, Cheveldayoff was quick to try and diffuse the situation.
“I heard a lot of passion. I’ve heard a lot of passion from a lot of different guys in many different situations,” said Cheveldayoff, who spoke for roughly 30 minutes. “With respect to Mark, he is a talented player. He is in the prime of his career, he is all those things that he said he is. He’s a Winnipeg Jet and he wants to win. As an organization we’re going to have to take a little bit of a re-assessment here to see where some things are at.
“We’ve been a cap team, we’ve been committed to that, we’ve signed guys long-term. That vision hasn’t changed, from a standpoint of wanting to win a Stanley Cup. We’re just going to have to come at it and look at it from a bit of a different perspective after a setback year like this.”
That setback saw the Jets miss the playoffs by eight points after posting a record of 39-32-11 and provides the backdrop for what should be a highly-entertaining offseason.
Figuring out what’s happening with the Jets top two centres is paramount for Cheveldayoff after being given a vote of confidence from co-owner and governor Mark Chipman.
Along with Scheifele potentially being on the trade block, the other order of business is to try and get pending restricted free agent Pierre-Luc Dubois to commit to a long-term deal.
Cheveldayoff met with Dubois on Monday morning and came away encouraged by what he heard, though he went out of his way to mention that the negotiation would not necessarily be completed quickly – since the player is arbitration-eligible and both sides are dealing with a relatively flat salary cap, which could present some challenges on a long-term contract extension.
“We had a good, candid conversation,” said Cheveldayoff. “Last year was such a weird year for him. We didn’t even really get a chance to sit down with each other until the exit (meetings) last year, so it was interesting and refreshing to get his perspective on things this year after having one full year with the organization in a more normal setting.
“Again, he knows squarely where we stand with respect to what we think about him and what we’d like to accomplish. The business side of the game will have to take care of itself.”
How Cheveldayoff proceeds with Dubois and Scheifele will be essential to trying to move the Jets beyond the bubble team status they currently hold.
Since the run to the Western Conference final in 2018, the Jets have won just one playoff series and that came last spring in a four-game sweep over the Edmonton Oilers.
Given the lofty expectations put on the Jets both internally and externally going into this season, Cheveldayoff wasn’t about to excuse himself from sharing a portion of the blame.
“Certainly again when you put the roster together and you’re the person in the organization that makes a great deal of decisions, it weighs on you immensely,” said Cheveldayoff, noting that the Jets plan to be a team that spends to the cap ceiling again next season. “The exit meetings I think are extremely important in this environment, in this situation, to ask those questions. As equally disappointed as everyone is right now, the euphoria at the start of the season was very high.
“This group had a lot of expectations in itself and with some of the moves that we made over the summer I think there was a tremendous amount of excitement. That level of high, certainly when you’re at this point here right now, not competing in the playoffs, is met with an equal level of low. But this group here genuinely felt that there was supposed to be more. I think that’s why you get the valley of the valleys of lows that we have here right now.”
In recent weeks, numerous Jets players have expressed frustration and disappointment over how things went during this underachieving season.
Cheveldayoff saw the comments from players as taking ownership, even if he didn’t care to join the chorus when it came to the harsh assessments like defenceman Neal Pionk saying it was “embarrassing.”
“The fact that players are saying that shows that they care, that they had a level of expectation. I think that’s the first point that you have to … if you’re going to be afraid to say it, it’s not going to help in trying to change that,” said Cheveldayoff. “If that’s what they truly believe then it’s also incumbent upon them, if they’re back. But the fact that guys are open to having those kinds of conversations, that’s refreshing.”
Jets forward Paul Stastny is a pending unrestricted free agent who has left the door open to return on Sunday, though he also shared some pointed thoughts about the need for players to hold themselves to a higher standard.
“We’ve got to be held accountable — whether it’s player on player — and we’ve got to have more respect for each other,” said Stastny. “When you don’t have that, when you don’t care about the teammate next to you — potentially — and you just care about what you’re doing or certain individual things, that starts bleeding into the game.”
That need for greater accountability leads back to the topic of building a winning culture and that’s another area where the Jets are looking for improvement.
“Again, culture is a very broad word that is used a lot,” said Cheveldayoff. “A culture isn’t something that you just say “Aha! that’s what I want.” A culture comes with having a core set of beliefs and then believing in the beliefs and then seeing the results that you feel you want from doing those little things. So culture just doesn’t happen overnight. Culture is a series of foundational pieces that everyone uniformly believes in and can grow from and see tangible results so that’s what we need to get to.
“We need to find, to get back to that foundational root and then we, as an organization, I think we have lots of those in place and we just need to continue to find a way to do them and find those results so they’re reinforced.”
One of the most confounding things for Cheveldayoff this season was watching a bunch of different players on the team come through with career-bests in certain offensive categories, yet seeing the team struggle to find consistency.
Rather than being a group that was greater than the sum of its parts, the Jets quite simply didn’t measure up and part of that equation is related to not being committed enough to defending – which is the area of the team game that requires the most attention.
Some of that is related to systems and structure, but it’s also a mindset. The best teams in the NHL don’t wonder whether or not they’re going to be committed to team defence. They demand of one another.
“This team needs to understand that they have to play a certain way,” said Cheveldayoff, noting that the full-scale coaching search is about to get underway and that interim head coach Dave Lowry has earned the right to an interview. “It’s not just this team, I think every team, you need talent to win in this league and you need that talent to be elite, whether it’s from the net, on defence, at forward, it has to be elite.
“But you also need that talent and that group of guys to understand that you’ve got to play a certain way and sometimes it’s not fun and some nights it’s more fun than others. But more often than not, you’re going to be on the successful side.”
Identifying the problem was the easy part, but now the challenge for Cheveldayoff is to ensure the necessary adjustments to the roster get made that might ultimately turn this area of weakness into a strength.