When Kevin Cheveldayoff was announced as the new general manager of the Winnipeg Jets following their relocation from Atlanta, the Winnipeg Sun’s Paul Friesen declared him the right man for the job.
Friesen called Cheveldyoff “one of the league’s up-and-coming executives” who spent two years as an assistant GM with the Chicago Blackhawks. He also noted Cheveldayoff knew the new Jets roster well, having spent two seasons as the GM of the former soon-to-be former Thrashers’ farm team.
Cheveldayoff adopted what blogger Matt Guerin of Arctic Ice Hockey called the “slow and steady approach” to roster building. He re-signed core players Evander Kane, Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little, Blake Wheeler, Tobias Enstrom, Zach Bogosian and Ondrej Pavelec (Dustin Byfuglien was re-signed when the club was still in Atlanta), plus added promising talent through the draft in Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba.
He also didn’t bust the budget adding expensive talent via trades or free agency, opting instead for complimentary supporting players like Olli Jokinen, Michael Frolik, Devin Setoguchi and Al Montoya. It was clear the lesson Cheveldayoff learned from his days with the Blackhawks was that in order to build a team into a perennial Cup contender, you must build with promising young talent and allow them time to develop.
For a while Cheveldayoff largely avoided criticism for sticking to his plan. Winnipeg hockey fans were thrilled just to have an NHL franchise back in their city, even if they weren’t the original Jets (who toil in Arizona as the Coyotes). Even the hockey media – local and throughout the NHL – had scarcely a discouraging word to say about Cheveldayoff’s work.
But by the end of season three under Cheveldayoff’s tenure, the honeymoon in Winnipeg is definitely over. The Jets missed the playoff for the third straight year (and for the seventh straight season dating back through their history as the Thrashers), giving rise to grumbling by fans, bloggers and pundits.
The complaints actually started before this past season. In May 2013 Friesen claimed the Jets GM could “tap dance with the best of them” in his unwillingness to directly respond to criticism regarding then-coach Claude Noel, which of his pending unrestricted free agents he wanted back or Byfuglien’s poor late-season performance.
Last December a Jets blogger suggested Cheveldayoff was “made of teflon” as most criticism for the club’s poor performance tended to bounce off him and stick to then-coach Claude Noel and several underachieving players. The same blogger was subsequently critical of Cheveldayoff’s draft record.
But it’s Evander Kane’s apparent unhappiness playing in Winnipeg (though he’s never come right out and made that statement) which ramped up the criticism of Cheveldayoff. Not only was the local media critical of his handling of the matter, it also drew attacks from media outside of Winnipeg. The Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons went so far as to call Cheveldayoff a “happy-just-to-be-here” general manager unwilling to ship Kane out of Winnipeg.
It’s possible Cheveldayoff could shock us all before this season begins and swing a blockbuster trade involving Kane, and maybe even one with Byfuglien, whose inconsistency made him a frequent target of criticism by Jets fans and the hockey media. Maybe he acquires Manitoba-born James Reimer from the Toronto Maple Leafs (as has been often speculated in trade rumors since the middle of last season) to challenge starter Ondrej Pavelec, who’s had his own share of ups and downs with the Thrashers-turned-Jets.
He could, but that doesn’t appear likely unless Kane, Byfuglien or Pavelec force his hand. None of the trio publicly demanded a trade, which is probably what it would take to force Cheveldayoff to move them before the season starts.
Though some Jets fans and the local media seem to be losing patience with Cheveldayoff, it doesn’t appear as though he’s feeling the same about his current roster. He’ll likely start 2014-15 hoping a full season under Paul Maurice, who took over from Noel at mid-season as head coach, will be what the struggling Jets need to put them into playoff contention.
Cheveldayoff, like most general managers, probably doesn’t give a tinker’s cuss about such criticism. It certainly appears his employers (True North Sports & Entertainment) haven’t lost faith in him. At least, not yet. They were willing to buy into his rebuilding program, content in the knowledge he knew what he was doing, understanding it would take time to build a strong contender. They’ve stood by him for three seasons of disappointment and failure. The question is, will they stand by him for a fourth?
If the Jets improve into a legitimate playoff team this coming season, Cheveldayoff’s job is safe. It’ll validate everything he’s done so far. Another season of struggle, however, could make this season his last with the Jets.