Chevy walks fine line on deadline day

Opinion



There was a point near the end of Kevin Cheveldayoff’s news conference Monday afternoon where he was asked a simple question: What message had he just sent to his locker room?

After all, the Winnipeg Jets general manager had just wrapped up a dizzying trade deadline in which he took on the unique role of being both a buyer and a seller. Rather than pick a lane, he was all over the road. By the time the dust settled, Cheveldayoff had pulled the trigger on six separate trades involving a total of nine players and seven draft picks.

“A mixed message in a way?” I suggested. It was a more polite way of wondering if he was sucking and blowing at the same time, the way his team has so often done on the ice this season.

For example, you don’t often see someone in Cheveldayoff’s position moving unrestricted free agents for draft picks, as he did twice on Monday, while at the same time spending a future lottery ticket of his own to bring in a UFA skater.

That’s a head-scratcher, to be sure. But here’s no question he was trying to walk a fine line here. Cheveldayoff couldn’t really afford to make the Jets any better, not without foolishly managing assets and potentially mortgaging the future. But he also couldn’t afford to make them any worse, either, with the club still clinging to hopes they can sneak into the Stanley Cup playoffs.

So he tried to juggle both the present and the future in a way that surely must be confusing to the rest of the roster right now, sitting with a 29-24-10 record and four points out of a playoff spot with 19 regular-season games remaining.

There’s anger, to be sure, over the loss of forward Andrew Copp, a drafted and developed talent who could do it all for the Jets. It’s fitting his final game 501st and final game with the franchise (including playoffs) came on Sunday night with him once again being asked to play with different linemates and switch positions (wing to centre). The versatile Copp responded by setting up three goals in a 6-4 win over Chicago.

The fact he even played in that game speaks to the dilemma Cheveldayoff was wrestling with. He told me there was never a thought of sitting Copp out against the Blackhawks to protect him from potential injury, even though he knew a trade was likely going down the next day. That’s because, as the GM explained it, the Jets desperately needed the two points.

Coming or going? Yes. And also yes.

Now Copp’s off to the Big Apple, to help the Rangers try to capture the Cup that never came during his time here in Winnipeg.

Good buddy Mark Scheifele is likely steamed at what must feel like the proverbial white flag being waved. Captain Blake Wheeler to. You could go down the list. These veterans are in “win now” mode, and seeing Copp sent packing for a pair of draft picks and a young forward prospect takes them further, not closer, to that goal. But Copp had to go, rather than lose him for nothing this summer when he could chase bigger dollars from another team as a free agent.

That’s just solid asset management.

And so Cheveldayoff immediately tried to re-tool on the fly, bringing back forward Mason Appleton (from Seattle) and adding bruising winger Zach Sanford (a pending UFA from Ottawa) to compensate for the loss of Copp. They’re likely destined for a new-look third line with Adam Lowry, which has been an ongoing issue all year for a top-heavy Jets team starved for offensive depth.

Perhaps it will work. Appleton and Sanford have combined for 34 points this year (15 goals, 19 assists), which is nearly identical to Copp’s 35 (13 goals, 22 assists). Both can kill penalties, which has been an ongoing issue for the Jets. They’re also a bit bigger, a bit more physical, which will potentially make Winnipeg a bit tougher to play against.

Appleton is a restricted free agent who will be here for at least another season beyond this one – at a fraction of Copp’s cost — while Sanford is likely only here to help get them through the final stretch.

“I think the message that I wanted to send is that I didn’t want to leave holes in this lineup,” Cheveldayoff responded to my query. “I had to make a business decision, that it was a very, very difficult one. It is unfortunate because we didn’t want to be in this situation. We are.”

Indeed, the Jets were supposed to be contending for a division title, not fighting just to qualify for the postseason. But this group has constantly underwhelmed, leaving one coach (Paul Maurice) to resign in frustration and his temporary replacement, Dave Lowry, to often struggle to find the words to describe the inconsistency we see.

A strong performance followed by a stinker. A win, then a loss. A team that is still struggling to find an identity, as many players have noted, despite having less than six weeks left on the calendar.

And a general manager who couldn’t figure out exactly what direction he wanted to go.

It’s become increasingly clear that True North believes Cheveldayoff should be the one to make those decisions, despite a disappointing season both on, and off the ice. He will likely be given every opportunity to remain at the helm, rather than be shown the door this summer in favour of a fresh voice.

It’s also likely this group needs a more extreme makeover than what we just witnessed, but that will have to wait until the off-season. Even bigger shakeups could be coming. It might mean trading a key forward, including someone like Scheifele. Or perhaps a core defenceman or two.

Unlike what happened on Monday, the message is going to have to be a lot less murky. Because an organization increasingly desperate to sell tickets in this market needs to let its frustrated fan-base know — loudly and clearly — that they’re serious about winning.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

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