The Winnipeg Jets have always been Kevin Cheveldayoff‘s team. Since relocation from Atlanta back in 2011, the general manager position has been filled by that of the 51-year-old Saskatoon, SK. product.
Sure, he served his time with the Chicago Wolves and later the Blackhawks, earning a Stanley Cup ring in the process. But at the initial unveiling of the team back in June of 2011, the name Cheveldayoff and the position of ‘general manager’ were hardly synonymous.
Inheriting a team of misfits from Atlanta, ‘Chevy’ and Co. were tasked with the near-impossible challenge of pleasing a city so hockey-scathed that it sold out its season-ticket drive for the then MTS Centre in less than 17 minutes. It was an easy sell, but not an easy job assembling a competitive roster on a year-by-year basis.
With the Blake Wheeler leadership team taking over the controls in 2016-17, a new brand of Jets hockey found its way from the rubble. With just one postseason appearance in its first six seasons back in Manitoba’s capital, the Jets began a string of four years of Stanley Cup Playoff action with the long-remembered 2017-18 season.
Having carved an identity under the league’s second-longest tenured head coach Paul Maurice, the boys laced in Aviator Blue have seemingly come just a couple of pieces short of the Stanley Cup Final and all the glory surrounding it.
Losing fan favourite defenceman Dustin Byfuglien and former Thrasher Bryan Little under separate difficult circumstances in recent years, the Jets have been tooling for a potter to help shape the clay that makes up the defence corps. Whether the bandaid fixes involved Johnny Oduya, Adam Pardy, Tyler Myers, Joe Morrow or Derek Forbort, the 2020-21 roster certainly featured a ‘soft’ blueline.
Despite pulling off some sensational contracts (see Mark Scheifele) Kevin Cheveldayoff may have found himself in the hot seat, for his lack of response to the Byfuglien fiasco – at least according to many of the local die-hards.
Opting to trade Jacob Trouba for Neal Pionk and the rights to select Ville Heinola proved to be another piece of mastery in the grand scheme of things.
Then began the summer of 2021.
With just hours to go before the official free agent signing period began, Chevy pulled the trigger on two trades that may have restored not only the strength and solidity of his back-end but also his name within the hockey community of Winnipeg.
“Certainly it’s been an interesting time since really before the Draft started,” Cheveldayoff said in his Wednesday afternoon media availability. “A lot of different conversations started even before the draft started, and some of those conversation morphed into at least one of the deals that were done. Different things transpired that we were able to effectuate the second trade as well. Certainly, from the onset, if you could’ve had a wish list and just put it up on the wall, I don’t know if it could have fallen into place any better with how it complements the defence we have in place already. It fits real seamlessly.”
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First, he dealt two second-round picks to Washington for rugged defensive defenceman Brenden Dillon on Monday. Cheveldayoff then followed it up with another shocker, this time acquiring the always energetic Nate Schmidt from Vancouver for a third-rounder.
“Dillon gives you a massive body that can do a lot of things out there, changes the complexion and look of our defence, or the hardness to play against. There is a real excitement level there. We had hoped that he would have been a guy that would go to market last free agency and was on the top of our list to target then,” he said of his first pick-up. “The opportunity to get Nate Schmidt – who just fits in so many different ways – and what he brings to this team from a character, compete, talent, and leadership standpoint is something I’m really excited about. I had some great conversations with him before the trade and after the trade, it was one of the most exciting conversations I’ve had with a player in a long time.”
Now looking at a defence corps featuring the likes of Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk, Dylan DeMelo, Logan Stanley, Ville Heinola, Schmidt, and Dillon, the possibilities of pairings are endless.
Oh, and wait. The team is actually nearer to the salary cap at this given moment – with a number of its RFAs still yet to sign – than it had been for many of the team’s first seasons spent in Winnipeg.
“We’ve got some work to do ahead of us to round out our roster,” Chevy added. “But again, I really like the core of forwards we had already, obviously love the Vezina-winning goaltender in the back and now the identity of our defence is probably going to be something that when teams come to play us, they’re going to talk about that almost more than maybe even the rest of our group because of what the elements it brings… But the level of excitement and the level of anticipation of the season, with these two guys added to our core, I had guys telling me they’re excited to go train, excited for the season. I think they believe and certainly I believe in them.”