Barring a surprise Stanley Cup run, the 2019-20 season will end up being a disappointment for the Winnipeg Jets. And, yet, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff deserves some credit for getting them as far as they are right now.
A Hard Path to the Playoffs for Jets
First, the Jets would first have to make the playoffs to go on a run and a berth is far from certain. They are in the middle of a dogfight for a wild-card spot in the crowded Western Conference race. One point up on ninth place with two more games played, the Jets need something of a miracle to pull off what had seemed impossible at the very start of the season, considering their tumultuous offseason last summer. That in and of itself is an accomplishment on Cheveldayoff’s part. It’s admittedly also a bit of an indictment.
Remember, the Jets are two seasons removed from a 50-win season, during which they made it to the third round. They may have lost to the upstart Vegas Golden Knights in five games, but the Jets were largely favored to win that series. Granted, every team the Knights faced were largely favored against them, in their first year as a franchise. And, if we’re being totally honest, the Knights have arguably accomplished more in their three seasons in existence than the Jets have since relocating to Winnipeg for the 2011-12 season.
Nevertheless, the Jets were seen as dark horses that postseason. They followed it up with a decent 99-point campaign in 2018-19 only to lose in six games in the first round to the eventual-champion St. Louis Blues. And, should they fail to so much as reach the postseason at all now, they won’t have simply have fallen out of contender status five times as fast as it took them to get there, they’ll have fallen completely on their faces in the process.
Cheveldayoff’s Defense in Tatters
It’s easy to point the finger at Cheveldayoff. This has all occurred on his watch. Furthermore, the turnover on defense relative to last season was something for which he likely could have better prepared as Ben Chiarot, Tyler Myers and Jacob Trouba are all now elsewhere. That’s saying nothing of the ongoing Dustin Byfuglien saga, even if it’s admittedly hard to fault Cheveldayoff there as Byfuglien is the one who failed to report to training camp.
Of course, Chiarot signed with the Montreal Canadiens and Myers with the Vancouver Canucks. In contrast, Cheveldayoff did manage to get something for Trouba, who, as a restricted free agent, had priced himself out of the Jets’ fiscal constraints. The trade with the New York Rangers has turned into a modest success with Neal Pionk defying most expectations, having scored an impressive 43 points so far this season.
It maybe wasn’t enough though, considering the Jets have given up a bottom-10-ranked 32.4 shots per game. It’s still an improvement over last season (33.4), but, still, without goalie Connor Hellebuyck’s Hart Memorial Trophy-worthy season, maybe this piece calls for Cheveldayoff’s dismissal instead. However, Hellebuyck is a member of the Jets, yes? Is he or is he not doing the job for which he was drafted? So, Cheveldayoff should be commended, not criticized for the success his No. 1 goalie has had.
Cheveldayoff’s Sterling Draft Record
Hellebuyck is meanwhile just one reason of many why Cheveldayoff deserves to stay on or even get a vote of confidence from ownership, regardless of this season’s outcome. Take even a passing glance at the roster for the others. Each of the team’s first picks under Cheveldayoff (up until 2016) isn’t just on the team right now (except for Trouba). They’ve also panned out beyond reasonable expectations: Mark Scheifele, Josh Morrissey, Nikolaj Ehlers, Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine. Furthermore, 13 total players drafted by Cheveldayoff are on the roster as it stands now. That’s almost half, which is absurdly high.
You can argue there’s more to being a GM than drafting and you’d be right. Even if you lump in a successful developmental system with it, consider the fact he successfully got both Connor and Laine under contract for this season, signing them to deals that are looking pretty decent at the moment considering their respective campaigns. Many thought he would have had to go the trade route… speaking of which, consider the Trouba deal as Exhibit A, proof Cheveldayoff knows what he’s doing. Successful trade deadlines in 2018 and 2019 further show he is far from out of his element when dealing with other GMs.
You’d be hard-pressed to find an outright bad trade out of the ones Cheveldayoff has made, too. The worst of the bunch may very well be a second-round pick for pending-unrestricted-free-agent Devin Setoguchi back in 2013, even if it turned into seldom-used Washington Capitals goalie Vitek Vanecek. It was nevertheless a pick the Jets could have used.
The Jets certainly could have used it more than Setoguchi, anyway. He scored just 27 points over the ensuing season before signing with the Calgary Flames the next summer. However, if that is indeed the argument, it’s giving Cheveldayoff even more credit for overseeing a successful scouting staff, as it’s an assumption he could have done better, instead drafted one of the handful of game-breaking talents left at that point in a relatively weak draft class.
Work Still to Be Done by Cheveldayoff
Obviously the current incarnation of the Jets has struggled, but that’s the (admittedly accurate) perception largely because of how close this group for all intents and purposes had been to winning. In theory, they still are. They just need an overhauled defense and, as four contracts on the back-end are coming due, this is the perfect opportunity.
Everyone has seen what the Jets can do when they’re at their best. As a result, Cheveldayoff has accomplished a great deal. Granted, it took a while to get there, four seasons on the job before a first playoff appearance and three more before the franchise’s first-ever postseason victory. The playoffs this season are still a possibility, but there’s almost an inherent understanding that, however far they get this spring, it won’t be far enough. Changes will need to be made, but by Cheveldayoff only. This is his team.
It’s of course also Winnipeg’s, but that sense of ownership, connection the city has with the team only re-affirms that Cheveldayoff has built something worthwhile. There are of course warts, but everyone, Cheveldayoff included, know where and what they are. It would be a different matter altogether if he didn’t, but, if the last 10 years with a team in Winnipeg, or more accurately the years before, have taught Jets fans anything, it’s that nothing comes easy. Things like success are fleeting. Things like good GMs too. You may want to keep this one.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.