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Jets' minds "very set" heading into draft

by Ryan Dittrick (@ryandittrick) / Winnipeg Jets

WINNIPEG - The decision is in.

With a little more than a week before the Jets depart for the 2016 NHL Draft, General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff now knows who he'll announce as the No. 2 pick next Friday in Buffalo.

"The list is pretty much in ink," Cheveldayoff said during a press conference Tuesday at MTS Centre. "Unless something really dramatic makes a shift that you just don't see - and you saw some crazy things in the NFL draft this year - yeah, our minds are very set."

With the Toronto Maple Leafs likely to select American forward Auston Matthews first overall, all eyes will be on Finnish wingers Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi when Cheveldayoff and the team's amateur scouting staff step to the podium.

"Sometimes those players can step right into your lineup and sometimes they can't," Cheveldayoff said of players drafted in the Top 3 or 5. "The players at the top end of the draft this year look like they're ready to step in. How much they contribute, what type of roles they play… That's really
left for them to determine. That's what training camp is about.

"It's an exciting thing."

The two Finns are both cornerstone wingers - offensive juggernauts with indispensable size and speed. As for which one of the two the Jets will leave Buffalo with - that will have to remain a
secret until about 6:25pm central time, 10 days from now.

Laine, a 6-foot-4, 206-pound goal-scorer, was dominant for the Finns at the 2016 IIHF World Hockey Championship, finishing with seven goals, 12 points and the tournament's MVP honours en route to
a silver medal.

This, just weeks after helping his club team - Tappara Tampere of the Finnish Elite League - win the national championship after a 13-year drought, scoring 10 goals and 15 points in 18 playoff games
to win the Jari Kurri Trophy as post-season MVP.

Laine suffered a leg injury at the NHL Scouting Combine a couple of weeks ago and did not perform any of the lower-body exercises, but did show well in an all upper-body circuit, completing 12 reps in the bench press (three off the lead in that category) before nailing nine pull ups without a break in between. He possesses both size and strength, and it was evident when he walked in the room - powerful, commanding, but in entirely in control, hilarious and pleasantly spirited. It was precisely the same impression Cheveldayoff was left with after interviewing him, and in fact each of the so-called "Big 3" earlier that week.

"He's confident and he's got a good sense of humour," Cheveldayoff said. "We talked a lot about him as a person, his family, the year he had and a variety of different topics. He was very at ease and a very good person to talk to. He's genuinely excited about where he fits in the draft. It's that kind of confidence that he shows on the ice as well."

While Laine has been criticized for his cool, confident demeanour in recent interviews, Cheveldayoff doesn't see it as a negative. "Anybody that goes out on the ice and competes at the highest level
has that level of confidence in themselves, and well they should," he said.

After all, we're talking about a player that simply believes in his abilities and has backed up his claims in just about every way possible. Where's the harm?

We at WinnipegJets.com secured private one-on-one interviews with Matthews, Laine and Puljujarvi at the Combine. All three were kind and respectful, humble and gracious young gentlemen. Each meeting lasted a mere 15 minutes, but it was enough to leave an impression; astonishing, really, considering the pressure these kids were under over the course of those few days.

"You get a very short period of time at the Combine to get a glimpse of (their personalities), but that's why you do a lot of due diligence behind the scenes," Cheveldayoff said.

"We're fortunate that we have a Finnish pro scout in Jari Gronstrand, so he knows those players very, very well. He knows their families; he knows (about) their upbringing. With Auston it's been a bit easier with him playing with the (U.S.) National Development Program two years ago. But these players have been on the radar for a while."

Puljujarvi was unable to participate in any part of the physical testing due to a knee injury, but was available for interviews, with both the clubs and media.

"It's all about trying to make the players at ease," Cheveldayoff said. "Jesse was a little bit different because he doesn't speak the language as well, but he's learning. He came into our interview and didn't want an interpreter. We had somebody there just in case, but he's working real hard at mastering the language."

While Puljujarvi hasn't received as much fanfare due to Laine's incredible showing at the Worlds, the fellow Finn had himself a year.

The 6-foot-4, 204-pound playmaker led all skaters at the 2016 World Junior Championship in points with 17 (5G, 12A) in only seven games en route to gold, winning MVP, Best Forward and First Team All-Star honours in the process. In the spring, he won gold again - this time leading the Finns to glory at the Under-18 World Championship, scoring 5-2-7, including a hat trick in the
gold-medal game, to cap a magical draft year.

With his club team - Karpat of the Finnish Elite League - he recorded 13 goals and 28 points in 50 regular-season games before adding another four goals and nine points in 10 playoff contests.

"You see him playing against his contemporaries and you see the type of player he is, and you understand why he's rated as high as he is," Cheveldayoff said. "Then you see Matthews and Laine playing at the World Championship level. Try and figure out who the 18-year-old out on the ice is.

"It's been an exciting process. We'll see how it goes."

The Jets, who were biggest movers on lottery night moving up to the No. 2 slot after winning the second of three draws, hold the 22nd overall selection as well. That pick was acquired as part of the Andrew Ladd trade back in February.

THIS 'N THAT

Cheveldayoff said that the Jets will look long and hard at signing a left-shot defenceman when the NHL's free agency period opens up on Jul. 1.

"We do think that the pick at No. 2 should step in, so you have to be cognizant of that and find out where he might or might not fit. … We'd look at a forward, but defence is a tough thing to find at any point in time, so a good left-handed defenceman is something we'd look at as well."

There is currently no update on contract negotiations with either Mark Scheifele or Jacob Trouba, or the team's four other restricted free agents, but now that the season has officially come to an end, Cheveldayoff expects business to pick up.

"This is really the time where things start ramping up. There are lots of backroom conversations, but once the Stanley Cup ends and the next thing on the docket is the draft and free agency, things get very serious, very quickly."

Cheveldayoff also poked fun at some of the crazy trade rumours that pop up at this time of year, of which there are many lighting up the Twitterverse.

"If you commented on every rumour that was made up in the Twitter world, you really wouldn't have time to do your actual job."

Don't believe everything you read on the Internet.

- Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com

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