Jets’ Cheveldayoff flips risk-averse script with bold Dubois-Laine trade

Kevin Cheveldayoff talks to the media about the blockbuster trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets and the conversations the Jets had with the Blue Jackets since the draft and how it led to a trade for Pierre-Luc Dubois.

WINNIPEG — This is the deal that could end up defining Kevin Cheveldayoff’s tenure as general manager of the Winnipeg Jets.

When you make a bold trade that ships out a popular player with the potential to win the Rocket Richard Trophy and toss in another former first round selection as part of the package, there is going to be some backlash from the passionate fan base.

That’s part of the job description and comes with the territory.

When it comes to the previous nine years that Cheveldayoff has been at the helm of the Jets, he was been viewed as one of the most conservative general managers in the NHL.

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To say he’s been risk-averse would be putting it mildly.

That approach was by design, and it has mostly served the organization well when it comes to the building process.

But to this point, the Jets have won just two playoff series and the bulk of this core group is under contract for the next four seasons.

This isn’t a time to rebuild; the time to try and take the next step is right now.

Prior to Saturday morning, there had been just one blockbuster on Cheveldayoff’s resume and that deal with the Buffalo Sabres was mostly borne out of necessity (headlined by Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian and Tyler Myers).

The move to acquire Pierre-Luc Dubois and a third-rounder from the Columbus Blue Jackets for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic eclipses that one immediately.

“To get a top centre in this environment is virtually unheard of, and that’s why the bidding was fast and furious,” Cheveldayoff said. “We wouldn’t have moved a Patrik Laine for anyone that didn’t fit that certain criteria of a top cenetreman or a top defenceman. When that opportunity presented itself, I felt it was necessary that we made that move.”

The departure of Laine caused a pair of teammates to be openly emotional after the deal became official.

“He cares a lot,” Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers said. “This is obviously the tough side of the business. He’s a guy that I’ve had a really good relationship with since my second year, since his first year. We were roommates together on the first road trip. We’ve been brothers since Day 1, so this is not very fun but like I said before, it’s part of the business. It’s the way it goes.”

Jets captain Blake Wheeler was reflective and that’s not a surprise. He’s got some experience in what Laine is going through, dating back to his time being dealt by the Boston Bruins to the Atlanta Thrashers in 2011.

Wheeler knows first-hand what going to a place with increased opportunity can mean for someone’s career. He has also watched Laine put in work and begin to grow into the dominant player he’s always been projected to be.

Now Laine’s talent — which is closer to a finished product — will be on display for a team other than the Jets.

“A young man who almost won the goal-scoring title. We connected on a lot of big goals,” Wheeler said. “We tried to give him the puck on the power play every chance we got. He’s a guy that’s very powerful and he’s starting to tap into that a little bit. So, I’ll have nothing but good memories of the time spent on the ice with Patty, and some of the steps we were able to take as a team and an organization, they all included his time here. I’ll be cheering for him, there’s no doubt, no doubt about that.

“I won’t lie. It’s kind of sad. Just rewind four years ago and the excitement when we drafted (Laine) and the steps our organization has taken and he’s a big part of that. It’s disappointing to be having this conversation. It’s the nature of pro sports and for our organization, we move forward.”

Usage has often been at the heart of the discussion when it comes to Laine.

With a top unit of Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor and Wheeler entrenched ahead of him on the depth chart, Laine has been used mostly on the second line – though he spent the bulk of last season on the top group when Wheeler moved down to play centre after the head injury to Bryan Little.

Laine was the focal point of the Jets’ power play, but his game had grown to a point where he wanted more responsibility and ice time.

Barring a change in philosophy, that wasn’t going to happen with the Jets. If it eventually did, Laine would have viewed it as a gesture that was too little, too late.

This trade includes risk for both teams, there is little doubt about that.

What this ultimately boils down to is that Laine’s time with the Jets was going to be over next off-season and there was no long-term extension on the horizon.

Sure, the Jets had two more years of team control, but holding onto him was simply delaying the inevitable departure.

The end was near and the availability of Dubois simply sped up the process.

As for Roslovic, he had also grown tired of waiting for an enhanced role – though he must bear some responsibility as several of his peers moved past him on the depth chart.

No franchise whose foundation begins as a draft-and-development team wants to ship two recent first-rounders out in any deal.

To a certain degree, it’s an attack on the fundamental values the Jets pride themselves on.

Since the return of the Jets 2.0 edition in 2011, the number of first-round picks that have been moved out via trade or waived includes Bogosian (2008), Evander Kane (2009), Alex Burmistrov (2010), Jacob Trouba (2012), Roslovic (2015) and Laine (2016).

The circumstances surrounding all of those players were different, but in each case, ice time or role was definitely part of the equation.

There is always going to be some turnover and roster churn — that’s the nature of the business.

Not all first-rounders grow into stars. Some become depth players and others don’t pan out at all.

There are a finite number of spots available on either the top two lines or the top defence pairing — multiple players are always going to believe they aren’t playing enough or being paid enough.

However, the exit of first-rounders is a trend the Jets can’t afford to have continue — especially when attracting premier free agents is a challenge and many players still have the Jets featured prominently on no-trade clauses.

It should also be noted that the number of first-rounders to commit to long-term deals includes Scheifele (2011), Josh Morrissey (2013), Nikolaj Ehlers (2014) and Kyle Connor (2015).

So, it’s an exaggeration to say that nobody is happy here and everyone wants out.

There is no guarantee this trade is going to work out for Cheveldayoff and company — but this isn’t Teemu Selanne for Chad Kilger and Oleg Tverdovsky, either.

Based on his development, Laine might not be far away from winning his first of multiple Rocket Richard trophies. He’s a budding superstar with personality to match his ability.

Roslovic has the talent to grow into a 20-goal scorer, but it’s up to him to find another level and increase his consistency.

The Jets can’t worry about what is going to come next for Laine and Roslovic, though you can be sure the fan base — and the court of public opinion — will be keeping score.

Is there a benefit to shipping those players to an Eastern Conference team that usually only makes one trip per season to Winnipeg?

Perhaps, but that wasn’t a driving force toward pushing the deal through.

The only thing that matters to the Jets is what Dubois does for his new team — and most importantly, whether he can be convinced to stick around.

Given their experience level and upside, Scheifele and Dubois form a dynamic one-two punch that will anchor the top two lines.

No, the final shift Dubois took as a member of the Blue Jackets wasn’t pretty, and the video evidence was available for all to see.

In talking to various people in many hockey circles this weekend, that snapshot doesn’t change the perception of the type of individual the Jets are bringing in.

Dubois won’t be judged on that action alone, but on his body of work — and that includes plenty of impeccable references.

“I don’t know what went on there. I know you get the camera on him and you decide what you see,” Maurice said. “None of us were a part of what went on there. You have no idea what went on in the background, so I’d be very careful with my character assassinations before I get to meet the man.

“He’ll walk in here, he’ll present himself, we’ll accept him with open arms as we always do with new players and we’ll judge him by how he becomes a Winnipeg Jet.”

In the short term, the Jets gain some salary cap flexibility and an additional year of team control when you compare Dubois (pending UFA in 2024) and Laine (pending UFA in 2023).

That’s helpful for the time being, but the quickest way for this trade to be deemed a success is if Dubois signs an extension (though that window doesn’t open up until July 28) and blossoms into a star.

With this move, the Jets won’t need to pursue a trade to add centre depth like they’ve gone out and done in each of the past three seasons.

By strengthening themselves down the middle, the Jets have taken an important — and necessary — step to widening their collective window of contention.

It came at a significant cost, but this blockbuster was a risk worth taking for the Jets.

That’s why Cheveldayoff came out of character and pulled the trigger.

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