The Winnipeg Jets are surely classed among the organizations feeling the most pressure to improve their fortunes during the 2017-18 campaign.
A 40-35-7 mark last year left the franchise out of the playoffs for the second straight season, and the frustrated fan base – clearly seeing a roster that should be yielding more positives than it has been getting – wants to see better results from head coach Paul Maurice and the players on the ice.
“I think as an organization, certainly we’ve been talking about trying to acquire the assets that we need to push this forward, and you can only acquire them so fast and so quickly,” said general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff during a Tuesday morning appearance on Toronto’s Sirius XM NHL Network Radio. “The young players that we have that we feel are ready to be the players and start driving us – the Troubas, the Scheifeles – they’re now drivers as opposed to just young players.
“It’s been something that we’ve been talking about. It’s something that if you’d have asked us two, three years ago where we were kind of projecting and the trajectory, these are all things that do take time and that you have to have some patience.
“We were aggressive in free agency this summer, more aggressive than we’ve ever been, because we feel that we needed to be able to surround these guys with some veteran players. Again, the opportunities were there for us to be able to do that in free agency as well.
“So it’s an exciting time. It’s exciting for Paul. There’s always lots of pressure on coaches. There’s pressure on managers. It’s the National Hockey League. You’re here to try and win. Every team – all 30 other teams, now 31 strong in the National Hockey League – are trying to do the same thing.”
Included in the changes to which Chevelydayoff alluded were the additions of goaltender Steve Mason (signed to a two-year, $8.2 million contract on July 1), defenseman Dmitry Kulikov (three years at $4.333 million per, and his contract carries a modified no-trade clause each season), and veteran winger Matt Hendricks (one-year, $700,000 pact).
The GM touched on the young players who have emerged into drivers, but one asset that has been a driver right out of the gate is Patrik Laine.
The second overall pick from the 2016 draft exploded for 36 goals in his 73 games during his rookie season, and that 64-point campaign is just a taste of what is to come from the Finnish talent.
“Still so fortunate as an organization to have won the lottery that year and move up six spots and get a chance to draft Patrik,” said Cheveldayoff. “He’s been as advertised and more type thing for us. He’s a real humble, respectful hockey player that wants to work real hard to be the best in his game and we think he’s just scratching the surface. He came leaps and bounds from the Xs and Os standpoint of the game, the nuances of playing defense, and just learning how to play in the National Hockey League. But his natural talents are just phenomenal, and that’s fit in real well with the group of players that we have.
“We’re excited for Year Two of Patrik Laine and obviously the chemistry that he develops with either Scheifele or Little or Wheeler or Ehlers – again, there’s lots of different options there for Paul to be able to mix and match with.”
Scheifele, 24, led the Jets with 82 points last season, his 32 goals and 50 assists certainly more than earning the first campaign of his eight-year, 49 million contract that was signed in July of 2016.
“He’s – and I don’t use the term lightly – he’s a Steve Yzerman type of guy for us,” said Cheveldayoff. “He’s a genuine, genuine person. And as good of a hockey player as he is, he’s even a better person. The excitement level that he has towards the game of hockey, the work ethic that he has towards his own personal betterment – it rubs off, it’s infectious on the rest of the group of guys.
“If we can do great things, he’s going to be at the center of it and it’s going to be because of all of the hard work and dedication that he’s put into it.”
— Winnipeg Jets (@NHLJets) September 5, 2017
Only three teams in the league gave up more goals than did the Jets in 2016-17, and the general manager is counting on Mason to help stabilize the situation between the pipes.
“Steve obviously is someone that has the experience as a bona fide No. 1,” began Cheveldayoff on his 29-year-old netminder. “He’s played that position for years. He’s gone through a real growing process, not unlike what Connor Hellebucyk is going through right now. He burst onto the scene, obviously winning the Calder Trophy and had a lot of ups and downs throughout the time. But he’s matured. The position of goaltender – a lot of it is talent, but a lot of it is that mental maturity and how to handle the everyday grind of being a No. 1 goaltender in the National Hockey League.
“So we think with the experience of Mason with the up and coming talent of Hellebucyk that the two of them will mesh together and that we should have solid goaltending on any given night.”
The Jets will be part of opening night for the NHL on October 4, which includes a four-game slate where Winnipeg will play host to the Toronto Maple Leafs.