Cheveldayoff & Jets Underwhelm On Free Agency’s Opening Day

There was action at Canada Life Centre on the opening day of NHL Free Agency yesterday afternoon, but it came in the form of a pickup floor hockey game made up of bored local journalists.

Why were the scribes slapping an orange ball around instead of furiously typing at their computers, like this author was as part of The Hockey Writers‘ extensive 2022 free agency coverage?

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It’s because, as other teams improved their stations by signing key free agents, Winnipeg Jets’ GM Kevin Cheveldayoff mostly sat by spectating.

Jets’ Pair of Moves Underwhelming

One Jets’ fan joked on Twitter that Cheveldayoff’s cell phone must still be down due to the massive Canada-wide Rogers’ outage last Friday, because he didn’t get much business done.

When the dust settled, he’d made just two minor additions. First, he signed backup goaltender Dave Rittich on a one-year deal to replace Eric Comrie, who more than doubled his salary by going to the Buffalo Sabres. A little later, he inked fringe centre Kevin Stenlund to a one-year, two-way contract.

David Rittich Nashville Predators
David Rittich was one of only two players Kevin Cheveldayoff added on a very underwhelming opening day of free agency. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

You could call that a “measured approach,” but you could also call it a failure a few weeks in the making.

Cheveldayoff had a strong draft last week in Montreal, making intelligent selections of players who have by all accounts the potential to be big contributors a few years down the line.

Related: Jets Replenish Prospect Pool With Balanced Selections at 2022 Entry Draft 

But he failed to address the present, which is rocky. He didn’t move captain Blake Wheeler and his massive contract, even though the best time to do so would have been when he could have included picks as sweeteners. He also didn’t move veteran defenseman Brenden Dillon, whom he said Wednesday would likely remain with the team.

Lack of cap space was always going to hinder the Jets to some degree on the open market, but the failure to free some more up kneecapped them further. While no one was expecting Cheveldayoff to sign Johnny Gaudreau or Vincent Trocheck, most were expecting him to pick up at least a player or two who could move the needle.

Jets Comfortable With the Team They Have, But Should They Be?

Cheveldayoff is hoping Rick Bowness, the newly-minted and highly-experienced head coach, can get something drastically different out of the group than Paul Maurice or Dave Lowry did. By “running it back,” so to speak, the Jets are betting that the problem last season really did lie almost totally in coaching, as opposed personnel. Cheveldayoff said Wednesday that after speaking with the coaching staff, they said were comfortable with the team they have.

But should they be? It’s undeniable that Jets are a worse team now than when they finished last season sixth in the Central Division and well out of a playoff spot, falling far short of expectations.

Paul Stastny, who played most of the season on the top six, is not likely to re-sign, while RFA Evgeny Svechnikov was not even tendered a qualifying offer despite his chemistry with Kyle Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois. Speaking of Dubois, he doesn’t want to sign long-term, while Mark Scheifele doesn’t seem like he wants to be in Winnipeg all.

Prospects such as Morgan Barron, David Gustafsson, and Cole Perfetti better be ready, because it doesn’t seem outside reinforcements are coming.

Cheveldayoff Needs To Get Himself In Gear

One day doesn’t an offseason make — Cheveldayoff still has two months to make trades and signings. He should be soon to tackle his long list of restricted free agents, and when he does, we’ll have a better sense of the how this this team’s going to look next season as it attempts to bushwhack its way out of the wilderness.

But day one didn’t inspire much confidence in an already wary and weary fanbase that Cheveldayoff will do anything significant. Frustration is mounting because it doesn’t seem like the organization knows which direction it wants to go: the Jets are not tanking, not aggressively pursuing free agents to accelerate a rebuild/reset, and certainly not loading up for a Stanley Cup run.

Kevin Cheveldayoff Winnipeg Jets GM
Kevin Cheveldayoff better figure out the direction he wants the franchise to take, and soon. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

If the “run it back” gamut fails and Bowness can’t get a flawed squad back to the playoffs — if 2022-23 is another lost season full of futility — fan engagement even lower than it already is. The Jets didn’t sell out a single game last season and a few thousand empty seats per game at the downtown rink has become the norm.

This is the most important offseason in Jets 2.0 history. But based on the way yesterday went, it’s hard to believe Cheveldayoff thinks so as well.