WINNIPEG - Even though the 2018-19 season came to an end for the Winnipeg Jets less than a week ago, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is wasting no time getting to work.
His to-do list is lengthy, but he'll be as calculated as he's always been - especially leading up to arguably his busiest off-season since getting hired by the organization in June of 2011.
"You have the UFAs, you have the RFAs, you have the different situations that may come into play. This year we have the full gamut of it," said Cheveldayoff. "We've got lots of different things. The job of today is to information gather, the job in the next couple of days is to continue to information gather within your group, dissect, then make a plan going forward."
Video: YEAR END | Kevin Cheveldayoff
The "full gamut" Cheveldayoff refers to includes seven unrestricted free agents (Kevin Hayes, Brandon Tanev, Par Lindholm, Matt Hendricks, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot, and Bogdan Kiselevich) as well as eight restricted free agents (Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Andrew Copp, Jacob Trouba, Nathan Beaulieu, Joe Morrow, Laurent Brossoit, and Eric Comrie).
Those are just the names that finished the season on the NHL roster.
"It takes a long time to develop a core - players you're willing to commit money and term to - they don't come by every easily," said Cheveldayoff. "You earn the right to have those challenges, but you have to manage them as well. There are going to be some difficult decisions. We're not the first team to have gone through it. You look around and learn from your experiences and every situation will be unique with respect to individual players and the different contract situations that will come up. You just have to manage it."
Near the top of Cheveldayoff's list are the contracts of Laine and Connor, who are coming out of their entry-level deals.
In 2018-19, Laine scored 30 goals - the third consecutive season he's hit the mark since coming into the NHL in 2016-17. The 110 goals he's scored is the sixth-most in the NHL in that span.
As for Connor, the 2015 first-round pick finished second on the team in goals this season with 34. That set a new career-high, besting the 31 he had in the prior season.
"There are lots of priorities, no question about it. The young scorers are right at the top," said Cheveldayoff. "They're players that, as tough as today is, you're excited that you've got these young guys that are parts of your organization. You have to find a way to keep that core together and keep adding to that core."
At 21 and 22 years of age respectively, Laine and Connor both said they'll be leaving the negotiating to their representatives as they go about their summer.
"It's obviously a different position than one I've ever been in," Connor said following his exit meetings with Cheveldayoff and head coach Paul Maurice. "I'm sure the agent is going to have talks with the GM and everything, so I'm just going to approach it as a normal summer for me."
While the restricted free agency experience is a new one for Connor and Laine, the unrestricted free agency realm is new for defenceman Ben Chiarot.
Video: YEAR END | JetsTV Panel
The 27-year-old has spent his entire career with the franchise and posted career-highs in goals (five), assists (15), points (20), and games played (78).
"It's obviously a new situation for me and my family. I haven't really thought about it too much," said Chiarot, adding that as a Canadian kid, he enjoys playing in a Canadian market.
"This is the only team I've ever known and ever played for. You know, there is something special playing on Hockey Night in Canada, and playing in front of a Canadian crowd is something I enjoy.
"I feel I'm part of the identity of the team. I've been here a long enough to feel that way and I'm proud to be a Winnipeg Jet. It's all I've ever wanted to be since the team moved here. I've come up through the system, I'm a home-grown guy and so obviously this is an important place to me and somewhere I enjoy playing. So hopefully things work out that way this summer."
Chiarot was one of the defencemen the Jets leaned on while they played the majority of the second half of the season without the services of Dustin Byfuglien, as well as the final six weeks without Josh Morrissey.
Both returned in time for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but Cheveldayoff felt Nathan Beaulieu stepping in right away alongside Jacob Trouba was key to the Jets weathering the injury storm.
He also liked what Kevin Hayes did up front.
"Kevin came in and allowed Paul to not have to run (Mark Scheifele) and (Blake Wheeler) in the PK role as much," said Cheveldayoff. "I think it encouraged him to develop or allow some other guys to run in the PK role so you're able to have the minutes a little bit more spread out. You did see the minutes usage change quite a bit when we made the additions down the stretch."
Video: YEAR END | Paul Maurice
Both Beaulieu and Hayes are on the list of contracts Cheveldayoff and his team will need to manage in the off season. The Jets GM also believes this summer will have a different feel to it than last season.
"We do have some challenges this year where again, last year I could sit here and tell you that we're probably going to bring back a lot of the same group and sprinkle some in," Cheveldayoff said. "There is going to be some changes this year and that's going to be inevitable. Whether they're filled with veteran players that fit the role that we need, that's what the summer is all about."
Commissioner Gary Bettman said in early December he expects the league's salary cap to increase from $79.5 million to around $83 million in 2019-20.
That extra room will be helpful for teams like the Jets, but how it all shakes out won't be finalized until that salary cap number is set in stone.
"I'm a realist when it comes to all these things. I've got lots of things that I need to digest and discuss," said Cheveldayoff. "Some of it will be internalized and thought through on my own, some of it will be discussed with my staff and ownership. We have to chart paths in a lot of different directions here relatively quickly.
"We're going to get right at it."