With Cheveldayoff quiet in free agency, is current core enough for Jets to win?

Winnipeg Jets Executive Vice President & General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff speaks to media at the closing press conference after losing in the first round of the NHL playoffs in Winnipeg on Monday, April 22, 2019. (John Woods/CP)

WINNIPEG – Never mind a full-on cannonball, Kevin Cheveldayoff barely dipped his toe in the water, nor did he leave much of a ripple as Day 1 of NHL free agency came to a close.

History would have told you not to expect the general manager of the Winnipeg Jets to be overly active and that was exactly what transpired as Cheveldayoff replaced backup goalie Eric Comrie with a reclamation project in David Rittich and inked a one-year deal with depth centre Kevin Stenlund.

These are not the type of moves that get a disgruntled fan base feeling overly encouraged about a group that failed to live up to expectations last season and missed out on the Stanley Cup playoffs.

As Cheveldayoff spoke to members of the assembled media inside Canada Life Centre on Wednesday afternoon, he took a measured approach as he fielded questions and as has often been the case during his 11 seasons as GM, he expressed confidence in a core group that’s been together longer than most around the league.

Whether this is wishful thinking or Cheveldayoff simply putting on a brave face, only he knows for sure.

Is a new coaching staff enough to help the Jets transform from an underachiever to a club challenging for a wild card?

Only time will tell.

“You look at a lot of different things,” said Cheveldayoff. “Obviously we’re still working on a few things on the free agent side of things. Hopefully some of those things come to fruition. It’s one of those things where sometimes things happen fast, sometimes things happen slow on free agent day.”

Cheveldayoff said that head coach Rick Bowness and associate coach Scott Arniel were comfortable with the current roster.

Does the GM feel that same level of comfort with the status quo – or something close to it?

“That’s pretty, it’s interesting. Last year, we’re sitting here at this time and we made the trades for the two defencemen and everyone is already engraving the names on the Stanley Cup,” said Cheveldayoff, referring to the additions of Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt.

“The year before, the year of 2017-18, I don’t think I’m probably having somewhat similar conversations at free-agent time and everyone was kinda looking at us like, ‘where are you?’ So, there’s a lot to prove. The players have a lot to prove to themselves and I know the coaching staff is excited about that.”

Cheveldayoff was asked a follow-up question about whether he was comfortable with the current roster?

“Yeah, I am,” said Cheveldayoff.

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So there you have it, the Jets GM doesn’t believe major surgery is required and he better be right – or he’ll need to do something about it.

The doubling down in the belief department isn’t a surprise, though it could be construed as Cheveldayoff trying to keep up a poker face as he looks to find a home for longtime captain Blake Wheeler.

It’s a complicated deal to complete because of the $8.25 million AAV Wheeler carries for the final two seasons of this deal.

Cap space is a valuable commodity, so the Jets are either going to need to retain a significant portion of salary or hope that a team that misses out on a highly-coveted free agent circles back on Wheeler, who still managed to record 17 goals and 60 points in 65 games last season.

What we know is that the Jets are still looking to upgrade the forward position, even though that didn’t happen with a big swing of the Louisville Slugger in free agency.

The bulk of those upgrades were always going to come via trade – and may still – or with a value signing, especially with so many forwards becoming available earlier this week when they weren’t given qualifying offers.

There’s still a logjam with the Jets’ defence corps, especially on the left side.

Despite the speculation surrounding Dillon, Cheveldayoff said he expects the blue-liner to be back next season and that’s a good thing, since he’s a guy that can log top-four minutes and can be an important part of the culture restoration as a guy who played for winning organizations in San Jose and Washington.

Whether or not someone else on the blue line could be on the move remains to be seen.

It wasn’t long ago when the Jets had a significant shortage on the back end, so Cheveldayoff is in no rush to move off the surplus.

“The bigger issue is when you don’t have enough defencemen and I think when you don’t have the opportunity for competition, that’s the bigger challenge,” said Cheveldayoff. “As an organization here, there’s going to be lots of competition. What you see on paper now, a month into the season you just don’t know. So, I think that’s a really good thing.”

At this stage, it’s fair to project that the acquisition of Rittich is a downgrade from Eric Comrie, who cashed in with a two-year deal that carries an AAV of $1.8 million – significantly higher than the $900,000 Rittich will earn and well higher than the Jets were comfortable paying the backup goaltender.

What we know is that even if there is a slight reduction in the workload for Connor Hellebuyck, he’s still going to be asked to start 60-plus games, which means Rittich is going to need to play somewhere in the neighbourhood of 20-to-22 starts.

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Is that a gamble? Absolutely, based on the fact Rittich made only 17 appearances and 12 starts last season with the Nashville Predators.

On a team known for being much more responsible defensively, Rittich’s numbers were subpar (6-3-4 record, with a 3.57 GAA and .886 save percentage) but he’s only two years removed from being chosen for the NHL All-Star Game as a member of the Calgary Flames.

The caveat to that is Rittich lost the starting job to Cam Talbot down the stretch and into the playoffs that same season and he hasn’t found that form since.

But the Jets aren’t asking Rittich to deliver elite level performance, they need him to be a serviceable backup and you can be sure he won’t be lacking motivation as a guy who wants to stay in the league.

It’s also fair to say the Jets backup job was viewed by many observers as a question mark going into last season before Comrie answered all of the questions about whether or not he was ready to handle the job – going 10-5-1 with a 2.58 GAA and .920 save percentage in 19 games (including 16 starts).

Outside of the departure of Comrie, the Jets held talks with the camp of veteran forward Paul Stastny, though the chances of him returning seem slim at this point.

Barring a change on that front, that’s another versatile player and experienced voice among the leadership group to be replaced.

On the opening day of free agency, Cheveldayoff made a decision to guard against overpaying for a quick fix.

Now he’s going to have to hope that his current bet pays off – or he’s able to make some other changes on the fly that don’t include a dollar amount or term he’s not comfortable with.

“It’s funny, you go back, we started off the day this morning looking at some of the signings six and seven years ago and most of those guys are being bought out or not in the league and still kind of making some money,” said Cheveldayoff. “It’s an interesting day, free agency for some teams, they spend big money and can regret it in a few years. For others, I know their approach is kind of keep it internal and go from there.

“I do think, again, the changes that are made on the coaching side, you’re going to see a different style of play with respect to the team itself. Sometimes you’ve got to be careful about thinking about what you don’t have as opposed to what you have and go from there.”

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