The NHL’s annual three-ring circus has officially arrived, with teams doing all kinds of roster juggling and salary gymnastics in an attempt to reach new heights. And the man in the middle of the action for the Winnipeg Jets admits it’s even more dizzying than usual this summer.
Step right up, Kevin Cheveldayoff.
“I would say it’s best described as a lot of balls in the air type of thing,” the Jets general manager said Thursday in a wide-ranging Zoom conversation. “Every decision affects another decisions affects another decision whether it comes to position or cap or free agency or trade so it’s one of those things where you have to kind of be methodical in the process.”
The Seattle Kraken expansion draft is now in the rear-view mirror, one which saw Winnipeg bid farewell to young forward Mason Appleton on Wednesday.
“It was a tough call to Mason to tell him that he was a selection,” said Cheveldayoff.
“On the eve of the draft, we end up losing a player that was drafted, that went through our development process, that became a key contributor in the American League and then a solid, key, contributor in the National Hockey League. It just kind of underscores what the process of this weekend (the NHL Draft) is all about. I’m proud of how Mason has come through the organization and I wish him all the best. It creates a hole in our lineup for sure that we’re obviously exploring right now, the different ways to patch that up.”
“It was a tough call to Mason to tell him that he was a selection.”
— Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff on losing Mason Appleton to the Seattle Kraken in the NHL expanson draft
The Jets will try to stock the prospect pool starting Friday night when they have the 17th-overall pick along with three later-round selections. This year is a bigger roll-of-the-dice than most, with young players across North America and Europe seeing limited actions due to the global pandemic.
“It certainly was a challenge. We had some scouts that were more fortunate than others and were able to have some live views. But man oh man, lots of video, lots and lots of video,” said Cheveldayoff. “There’s going to be some good players. It’s going to be an interesting process. Is it going to be as tight to your list as in the past? I don’t know. There’s some good players in our range there that we’d be real excited to have. Some of the players that we’ve picked in the past in this range have gone on to be very good players for our organization right now.”
Once that event is over, the Jets will move directly into free-agent frenzy, which begins next Wednesday. And that’s where the immediate look of the roster could really change.
Cheveldayoff said the blue line is an area of focus, although they dodged a bit of a bullet this week when shutdown defender Dylan DeMelo wasn’t selected by the Kraken. He, along with Logan Stanley, Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk and bright young prospects such as Ville Heinola and Dylan Samberg are the current and future core.
“There has to be an opportunity in front of us that makes sense. There’s lots of names out there that people say would be great fits, but the fit has to be the right thing for both sides,” Cheveldayoff said of potential adds either through trades or signing UFAs.
“Again, it will be a function of cap as well. There’s only so many dollars that we can shift around or do different things with that respect. We have to give some value to the young players that we have in the organization and put them up beside what a potential free agent might look like and see where things are going to be at 20, 30, 40 games down the road. Would you be in a better position with those players having played that amount of games and (gain) that amount of experience?”
“There has to be an opportunity in front of us that makes sense. There’s lots of names out there that people say would be great fits, but the fit has to be the right thing for both sides.”
— Cheveldayoff on potential trades or UFA signings
Cheveldayoff hasn’t ruled out circling back on some of his own pending UFAs, a long list which includes defencemen Tucker Poolman and Derek Forbort, forwards Paul Stastny, Mathieu Perreault, Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis, and backup goaltender Laurent Brossoit. The Jets are also in the early stages of contract talks with restricted free agents Pionk and Andrew Copp, who both stand to get sizable raises.
There wasn’t a ton of what you would call breaking news coming from the usually tight-lipped Cheveldayoff, although he did reveal he fielded numerous inquiries about Stanley ahead of the expansion draft, which ultimately led to the Jets protecting him over DeMelo.
“We had a lot of calls on Logan to see if we’d be interested in trading him as opposed to potentially losing him, so we went through that process and it became very apparent that even if Seattle wasn’t the ultimate destination, there was a lot of places that might have reached out to Seattle to go in that regard,” he said.
Cheveldayoff also re-iterated the Jets are still in “win-now” mode, coming off a third-place finish in the all-Canadian division and a first round playoff sweep of Edmonton which was quickly wiped away by a four-game exit to Montreal. Winnipeg will move back to its familiar spot in the Central Division for the coming campaign.
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“We’ve been in that mode since the day that we actually were able to re-sign Blake Wheeler. It was one of those things where if he had gone off into free agency, I think the path of the organization would have likely gone in a different direction,” said Cheveldayoff.
“We have had a lot of ups and downs and bumps and unforeseen things happen to us along the way. Be it Bryan Little (injury), be it Buff (retirement), those types of situations where we have had to kind of pivot on the fly, and we have been able to make the post-season while still doing that. That urgency has been there, right from that moment on and it continues moving forward here. We are fortunate that we have a good group.
What has happened along the way is players like Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers have really come into their own. Obviously, we have made that decision several years ago to give Connor Hellebuyck the reins and let him cut his teeth in the National Hockey League; that decision has helped us to get to that point where we are at now with a Vezina-winning goaltender. So we are hopeful that we can find ways to address it but the opportunities again have to be there. We are hopeful that we can find our way.”
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