Sticking to the Plan: Winnipeg Jets finally getting rewarded for their patience

By The Canadian Press
December 18, 2017 - 4:15pm

Kevin Cheveldayoff knows if the circumstances were different, he might have been out of a job a few years ago.

Tasked with overseeing the rebirth of the Winnipeg Jets as a rookie NHL general manager when they returned to the hockey-mad city in 2011, the club has made the playoffs just once under his watch.

But despite rumblings of his demise on more than a few occasions, Cheveldayoff's vision to draft and develop players, coupled with the organization's patience from top to bottom, is finally paying off.

"Very fortunate to have the ownership group that we have that shares the same philosophy on how we were going to do this," Cheveldayoff said in a recent interview. "We were patient with the development of some of our young players. In today's day in age you can't rush them.

"We feel that's going to help them in the long run."

It certainly has so far this season.

The Jets entered Monday's action seventh in the overall standings, fifth in the Western Conference and third in Central Division with a 19-10-5 record. Their 43 points has them just three back of the Nashville Predators for first in the conference and the division, and is the best mark among the seven Canadian teams.

Winnipeg is on pace for 103 points, which would not only rank as the franchise's best season since the Atlanta Thrashers were sold and moved to Manitoba, but also higher than any total the previous incarnation of the Jets could muster before relocating to Phoenix to become the Coyotes in 1996.

"We've just got to keep our head down and keep grinding away," said Cheveldayoff.

Grinding away is also a good description for how he's built the Jets during six-plus years at the helm. Cheveldayoff, who won the Stanley Cup as an assistant GM with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, drafted 10 of the players on Winnipeg's current roster.

Some of Cheveldayoff's picks — including star forwards Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine — hit the ground running, but others like defenceman Josh Morrissey and goalie Connor Hellebuyck have taken longer to find their footing.

"From my very first training camp you understood why a player got drafted," said Jets head coach Paul Maurice, who was hired in January 2014. "You don't always know. There's exceptions when an Ehlers comes in or a (Laine), but you understand why the player was drafted.

"The draft and development ... it's been at the forefront for us."

The veteran players have seen it, too.

"Guys that have been here the whole time, it was tough to be patient," said captain Blake Wheeler. "We knew what was coming down the pipeline, it was just a matter of when."

For the 22-year-old Morrissey, it's been exciting to be among the youthful crop that has Winnipeg on the move.

"The team has done an awesome job of bringing in some really great young players and really good young people that are willing and ready to learn," he said. "It's cool to of be a part of that group."

While ownership had patience with Cheveldayoff, he has in turn given Maurice more rope that most coaches get after missing the playoffs two years in a row. Winnipeg made the post-season in 2015, but it was over quickly in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Anaheim Ducks.

"The thought process of what we have been doing essentially was laid when he came in," said Cheveldayoff, who along with Maurice was rewarded with a contract extension in September. "We had talked about some different aspects of things that we felt, as an organization, we were going to need to try to do to win.

"Paul is a very good communicator. He's someone that has tremendous respect for the players, but also has tremendous respect from the players."

It hasn't been hard for Maurice to see the big picture despite some frustrating moments.

"It would be difficult if you didn't believe it, if you stood behind the bench and said, 'Yeah these kids are good kids, but they're five years away," he said. "We were a very young team the last two years, and you could see the kinds of things they couldn't do yet, but you knew they would fairly soon.

"Our young guys are still working on becoming really good everyday. There's lots of nights they're really good. Getting them to that consistent level is the challenge now."

Cheveldayoff is quick to keep things in perspective just past the midway point of the schedule, but seeing his blueprint turning into tangible results has justified his plan for the Jets.

"It's been a good start," said Cheveldayoff. "You've got lots of runway ahead of you to try to continue to keep it going."

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With files from Judy Owen in Winnipeg

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press

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