WINNIPEG — The intensity of the organizational audit is about to ramp up exponentially, but the individual conducting the internal investigation is going nowhere.
Although there has yet to be a formal announcement, Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has been given a three-year contract extension to continue to run the hockey team.
Thanks to a 4-3 win over the Seattle Kraken on Sunday afternoon, the Jets have officially entered what could be the most important off-season in franchise history.
With a record of 39-32-11, the Jets finished in sixth place in the Central Division, missing the playoffs eight points behind the Nashville Predators for the second and final wild-card berth in the Western Conference.
Cheveldayoff is the only GM the Jets have known since the franchise relocated to Winnipeg in 2011 and he’s got some important decisions to make as it pertains to the direction of the hockey club and its roster composition.
Near the top of that list of priorities is determining the future of centre Mark Scheifele.
Scheifele missed the final nine games of the season with a shoulder injury but he finished second in team scoring with 29 goals and 70 points – marking the sixth consecutive campaign that he’s been a point-per-game player.
But with only two years left on his current contract (which carries an average annual value of $6.125 million) and some concerns being raised about his level of defensive play, it’s possible that the Jets will be entertaining trade offers for Scheifele, who will have no shortage of suitors if he ends up being available.
Scheifele spoke to reporters for the first time since suffering the injury after taking a hit from Ottawa Senators forward Parker Kelly on April 10 and he sounded like a guy who was unclear about whether or not he will be sticking around.
“I’d love to be in Winnipeg, but I also have to see where this is all going and what direction this team is going in and I guess we’ll see this summer,” said Scheifele. “I’m in the prime of my career. I still have so much to improve on too and I like where my game is at. I like the physical nature that my body is at. I’m only improving, I’m only getting better and I’m only going to be a better player next year than I was this year.
“I just have to know where this team is going and what the direction is and what the changes are going to be, if any. I have to think about my career and what’s going to be best for me. Those are going to be…talks with my agents and everyone in my family and stuff like that and figure out what I really want. So, it will be a tough talk tomorrow.”
The timing of the injury meant Scheifele had already taken some time for careful reflection and he shared some of those thoughts about the need to turn the page.
“It’s one of those years you look back on and some of it’s a blur and some of it’s really clear. It’s definitely a year I’ll try to forget a little bit,” said Scheifele. “It was a tough one, from a lot of things, COVID, injuries, coach leaving, a new coach coming in, all that stuff. Olympics, yeah, I’d forgotten about that already. It’s one of those years where it sucked, it was a crappy ending. But like I said before you can’t dwell on it too long, you have to reflect and think about the good and the bad and the ugly and come back better next year.”
Pending restricted free agent centre Pierre-Luc Dubois needs a new contract and is a guy the Jets would like to build around. Getting him signed to a long-year pact is a critical piece to helping to re-open and eventually widen the window of contention.
The Jets must also make a decision on the fate of interim head coach Dave Lowry and the coaching staff.
Lowry guided the Jets to a record of 26-22-6 since taking over from Paul Maurice, who announced his resignation on Dec. 17.
Lowry isn’t sure what the future is going to bring and it’s possible that he won’t necessarily find out quickly whether or not he’s going to be back in the fold or looking for a new job.
“My whole thing is I’m not going to worry about what I’m doing,” said Lowry. “I want to get through what we’ve done as a group. I think it’s a good opportunity for me to sit down with players and really find out what worked, what didn’t work, where can we get better. Not only where can the players improve, but where can I get better. Where can our staff get better? That is something organizationally, top to bottom, you’re going to try to find areas to make improvements.”
The timing of the news on Lowry’s future might depend on the pool of candidates, which could increase depending on an early exit in another market.
The air of uncertainty comes with the territory.
“That’s life. This is the business we’re in,” said Lowry. “It’s no different than players on expiring contracts, right? They’re going to be looking for a position, they’re going to be looking for jobs next year if it doesn’t work out. The biggest thing is I’m not going to guess the future.
“I’m going to reflect on what we did. We’re going to sit down with our staff and we’re going to look at areas that we’re going to have to get better at. We’re going to look at things that worked, things that didn’t work. Come back and be better for it. I believe the adversity that we faced throughout the year is going to make myself a better coach.”
Lowry didn’t think having an interim label attached to his situation presented any challenges.
“To be perfectly honest, I didn’t really pay any attention to that,” said Lowry. “When I found out it was a shock. I was as shocked as you were the next day when you came to the rink. We had a talk amongst the staff that we’re going to do what we needed to do to try and find ways to win hockey games. Whether it be an interim tag or a full-time tag, that wasn’t going to change our approach.”
Cheveldayoff will conduct exit interviews with Jets players on Monday and is also scheduled to speak with reporters at noon CT.
Whether or not Cheveldayoff is ready to decide or discuss the future of Lowry remains to be seen, but a thorough search for the position is expected to take place.
Since the Jets have been eliminated from playoff contention, there has been a steady stream of players who have expressed disappointment about how things ended up for a group that was expected to move from bubble team back into contender status but ended up falling short of those lofty expectations.
“It’s an underachievement in my view and I think most guys in the room share the same opinion,” said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey. “Everyone is not happy with where we’re at. I do think our team, the team in that locker room, we have a playoff-calibre team, we have a team that can win.
“But I think if we just say, ah, it’s a one-off, we’ll come back next year and be the team that we think we should be, it’s not going to happen. We’re mad about the way that it’s gone and the only guys that can right the ship are the players. But it’s going to take hard work and obviously a big offseason to be able to do that and not just complacency thinking it’ll just happen.”
The last word today belongs to Jets captain Blake Wheeler, who didn’t hold back when asked about where the organization currently stands going into this offseason.
“It’s just disappointing. I don’t think there is anyone that can be very proud of their performance this year,” said Wheeler. “Collectively, as a group, we weren’t able to figure it out. I said all year, and I still believe this, there is a good hockey team in there. The onus is on us as players. At the end of the day it’s our responsibility to continue to trend in the direction we’ve been trending. We took a step back this year.
“We can no longer call ourselves contenders. I think we are one of those teams that is a fringe playoff team now. It’s up to everyone involved to look in the mirror and say, ‘Why? Why did we get to where we’re at?’ First and foremost, it’s our responsibility as players to bring that type, that quality of play to the ice that we have a chance to contend and compete for a championship. That’s why I’m here and that’s why Paul (Stastny) re-signed here. There’s nothing else to it.”