A day after his team captured a win to start the second half of their season in a positive fashion, Winnipeg Jets’ general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff spoke with a number of reporters at a midseason news conference.
Holding court for half an hour, Cheveldayoff gave some insight as to the state of the club he’s assembled — one that’s underachieved at 19-17-7 despite the strong players he added over the offseason — and what the future may hold. Here are some of the highlights.
On The 2021-22 Season So Far
“It’s been an emotional season, it’s certainly had it’s ups, had it’s downs,” Cheveldayoff said of his team that sits at fifth in the Central Division and nine points out of the second Western Conference Wild Card spot. He said it’s been an emotional campaign given the adversity due to injuries, COVID-19 positive tests and postponed games.
Asked why the Jets haven’t played well — like they did in their recent 2-0 victory over the Minnesota Wild — on a consistent basis, Cheveldayoff said the team has played well in spurts and has often not seen results even when playing a strong team game.
“Obviously, we need to improve,” especially from a defensive standpoint, Cheveldayoff admitted. He noted the chances of getting on a roll and winning key games will be primarily based on how strong the back-end performs. “It all has to stem from that two-way effort,” he said.
On Coping With COVID-19
Since mid-December, the Jets have had nearly 30 positive COVID tests among players and staff.
“The thing that’s been really challenging for us, and I know it’s been mentally challenging even for me, is that we haven’t been that team that had the massive outbreak that had games postponed and shut down simply because we couldn’t play because of COVID,” he said. “I think the most we’ve had in one day in four but it’s been that trickle effect,” with the whole group never being available.
“You know when the test results are coming out every day and the level of anxiety I went through just from managing the roster and trying to manage the salary cap… it’s amazing,” he continued.
He said he will never forget the game against the Florida Panthers last month when defenseman Josh Morrissey tested positive just two hours before puck drop and trying to deal with that on the fly.
“I thought the coaches have done a good job of trying to manage that. it’s literally been the ‘next man’ or ‘next one up’ mentality,” noting the Jets have had five players make their NHL debuts this season. “Opportunity is here for a lot of them, and it’s incumbent on them to take it when the can.”
Cheveldayoff said now that the NHL has eased COVID-19 testing protocols and daily asymptomatic tests have been phased out, “all we can do is focus on this next stretch and hopefully get some guys back from COVID and get some guys healthy…” he said. Three Jets are in COVID-19 protocol and another six are injured.
On Dave Lowry’s Performance as Interim Head Coach
“I thought he and the staff have handled the challenges well,” he said. “I think that again, It was an emotional time for everybody when things transitioned. but at the end of the day we still need to find results here.”
Dave Lowry has been interim head coach since mid-December. He was tapped to replace Paul Maurice, who resigned on Dec. 17 because he had lost his passion for the job and knew the team needed a new voice to get them to the next level.
The Jets are 6-7-1 in the Lowry era and winners of just three of their last 10.
“You look at the individual areas, the penalty kill’s improved, the power play’s been the same — struggled for a while, scored for a while,” he said. “We still we need to find a way to win on a consistent basis and that’s playing a team game no matter whose in the lineup.”
He doesn’t think player buy-in to Lowry’s system has been an issue, and said Lowry hasn’t implemented drastic changes from Maurice. He said it’s been a struggle for players to get into a rhythm due to nine games being postponed for various reasons and wreaking havoc on the schedule since Lowry took over.
“Guys would get out of that game rhythm, then you’d play a game, you’d get excited, you’d ramp yourself up for it and then we’d have long stretches again where we wouldn’t play,” he said. The Jets at one point had two weeks off, and another, one week off.
On His Veteran Players’ Performance
The Jets have struggled to find an identity this season, and Cheveldayoff was asked if the Jets are getting enough from the leadership core and veterans. Cheveldayoff said there’s no doubt — from the way the roster has ben built — the Jets are top-heavy and needs players like Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele to step up. Both have underperformed.
“There’s no excuses, that’s pro sports, that’s the ups and the downs of it,” he said. “As a group, we have to find a way but I feel good about this group, I’m confident about this group.”
“I know the level of leadership in that room, I know the level of buy-in, and I know the level of care. It’s a challenge.”
Regarding Scheifele, who has often been disengaged and played poorly defensively, Cheveldayoff said “if you probably asked him he’s probably not overly happy with where things are at from his standpoint, here right now.”
But Cheveldayoff noted he’s “an elite player” and he has never “questioned his commitment to the organization now or certainly into the future from the day he signed his contract with us.”
On a Pierre-Luc Dubois Contract Extention
Centre Pierre-Luc Dubois’ two-year contract expires after this season and he has rebounded nicely after a disappointing first campaign with the Jets.
He has 18 goals and 15 assists and has been one of the Jets’ most consistent play-drivers, which is what they were hoping for after acquiring him in a blockbuster trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets 13 months ago.
Cheveldayoff had some conversations with Dubois’ agent over the All-Star break, but said they aren’t yet at point where they need to get into the nitty-gritty of contract discussions.
On His Strategy at the Trade Deadline
The Jets are “in an interesting situation” having spent up the salary cap ceiling after taking on a number of big contracts (such as Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt’s) via trades in the offseason, Cheveldayoff said.
“Our focus full and foremost is now,” Cheveldayoff said on his strategy as the March 21 trade deadline approaches. “If there’s a way we can improve the team… through a hockey trade then we’re certainly going to look at that.”
Cheveldayoff said it was “too premature” to discuss whether he was prepared to be a seller if the Jets fall further out of the Wild Card race. Cheveldayoff has players on moveable contracts who would be desirable as rentals for competitive teams, such as Andrew Copp and Paul Stastny. Both players could bring a nice return of prospects or draft picks.
“I think you can fall into that trap very, very easily of trying to look too far ahead,” Cheveldayoff said. “To try and sit here and ‘crystal ball’ where things are going to be and what your mentality is going to be when things are still six weeks away and so much hockey that we have in front of us, it’s tough to say right now.”
On Who’s Responsible for Progress and the Push to Avoid a Lost Season
“The only people that can really effectuate things is the players,” Cheveldayoff said. He noted coaches of course play a role, but the players are the ones actually out on the ice. “Ultimately, that’s why I still feel confident in this group — because I think there’s a good group of players there that can find a way to come together and overcome yet another challenge that this group has had to face.”
If the Jets do miss the playoffs, Cheveldayoff said “we’ll deal with whatever we have to deal with at that point in time,” noting the expectation at the beginning of the season was the club would be a strong contender. Many thought they could challenge for a Stanley Cup.
“There’s opportunities for players to lead, there’s opportunities for players to take advantage of the situation that they’re in with respect to COVID and injuries,” he said. “And I fully expect players to take advantage of that and see where we’re at… our sole focus is on trying to push this group right now.”
February will be make-it-or break it for the Jets. They play 10 games between now and the end of the month, with seven games being either against Central Division opponents or teams they’re chasing for the second Western Conference Wild Card spot.