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Jets being rewarded for draft-and-develop strategy

GM Cheveldayoff's patient approach has Winnipeg on verge of best season in franchise history

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

There are less than three weeks remaining in the 2017-18 NHL regular season and teams are fighting for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. With the annual general managers' meetings taking place in Boca Raton, Florida, this week, NHL.com sat down with some of the biggest names in the game. Today, Winnipeg Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff talks about how he built the team into a playoff contender.

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- The Winnipeg Jets need two points to set a franchise record for most points in a season.

The Jets, second in the Central Division, have 98 points with nine games remaining and can set the record by defeating the Anaheim Ducks at Bell MTS Centre on Friday (8 p.m. ET; TSN3, FS-W, NHL.TV). One win will make them the first team in Winnipeg's NHL history to reach 100 points in a season.

The Jets had 99 points in 2014-15, the only time they've reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs since relocating from Atlanta for the 2011-12 season. The Atlanta Thrashers topped out at 97 points in 2006-07, the only time they reached the playoffs in 11 seasons before the move.

The original Jets, who played in the NHL from 1979-95, never had more than 96 points in a season (1984-85) before the franchise moved to Arizona.

What the Jets are about to accomplish is quite significant. It's also the result of years of building, of drafting and developing, of patience and of losing, all of it under the guidance of general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, who has been with the Jets since the move to Winnipeg.

Cheveldayoff has acquired every player on the roster except defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, defenseman Toby Enstrom, center Bryan Little and right wing Blake Wheeler. Those four are holdovers from the days of the Thrashers, but all have since re-signed with the Jets.

Cheveldayoff is finally seeing the fruits of his labor this season, but he's also looking ahead to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, when the hope is the Jets are finally good enough to make a splash.

 

On getting positive results after years of building the roster

"There's lots of things that do come into play. For us, it really goes back to some of the decisions we made last year and maybe some of the decisions we were criticized for making, with respect to giving Connor Hellebuyck the opportunity to be the No. 1 goalie and to play the games that he did. We waived a veteran goaltender [Ondrej Pavelec] at the time to do that, but we felt that we needed to make sure we did some things along the way to get him the experience.

"That's kind of been our thought process in several other fronts, whether it went to [Nikolaj] Ehlers or to a lot of the decisions we made. If we felt it was part of the bigger picture we were prepared to do that so that in a year like this, when Connor has a year under his belt, when Nik Ehlers is now a very established player and so on and so on, you get the benefits of those young players really coming into their own."

Video: DAL@WPG: Hellebuyck makes superb series of saves

 

On the patience required to build the roster this way

"Patience is maybe a little bit of an overused term because you can only do what you can do. A player can only develop as quickly as they develop. You have to have the support and the commitment from ownership that they believe in what you're trying to get accomplished. I can't make a guy gain experience without giving him experience. I can't make a young player play well at 18 or 19 if they're not ready to play at 18 or 19. But when they are ready I can give them the opportunity, I can make sure that I don't sign a one-year deal on a player that's maybe one and done as opposed to playing a player that might turn the puck over for the first two months but then in month three and month four you're like, 'Oh my goodness, look how good he is.'

"You want it to happen quicker, there's no question about it. Certainly, for the veteran players on your team that you've talked to and said, 'This is what we're trying to do,' you hope it can happen quicker. But even right now, we've accomplished nothing. We've gotten some points up until this point. There is still no 'X' beside our name on the playoff ledger. Ultimately, you want to make something good happen with what's in front of you. Things still need to fall into place."

 

On whether it took some convincing to get buy-in from veteran players

"No. I keep going back to the extension we signed with Buff [Byfuglien] the year that we did. He was essentially six to eight weeks away from being an unrestricted free agent and I sat there, we looked each other in the eyes and I said, 'Buff, why? Why do you want to stay? We're close. We've got the money. But why?' He said, 'Because the young guys. I think we've got a real good chance here.'

"Little echoed the same thing. When I sat down with Blake Wheeler prior to this past summer, I said, 'Look, Blake, here's what I'm going to try to do. I'm going to try to lose nobody in the expansion draft because I don't want to lose any of our players that are part of this core we've taken time to build.' I also said, 'I hope Toby can waive his no-move,' which eventually he did. That allowed us to keep all our forwards when potentially we were going to lose one. That was step one.

"I said, 'If we can be aggressive in free agency, we're going to be as aggressive as we can.' We were able to get three pieces in free agency [goalie Steve Mason, defenseman Dmitry Kulikov and forward Matt Hendricks] that we felt would help us. But all along we said when we had an opportunity we were going to try to do what we can do."

Video: DAL@WPG: Laine extends point streak with PPG

 

On using that same philosophy to trade for center Paul Stastny on Feb. 26

"If Stastny didn't get accomplished we were prepared to go forward with what we had because we believed in the group. But we felt if we could be aggressive and if there was a fit -- if there wasn't a fit, we weren't going to just get a player for the sake of getting a player. But we did feel, and it's a big price to pay, to get Stastny was a piece that our group would really benefit from."

 

On how Stastny has fit in and his potential to help the Jets in the playoffs

"I think he's fit in in a lot of ways. For starters, once he got here Mark Scheifele got hurt again, but I think it gave us another player in our room with 800 games with National Hockey League experience, 50-plus games of playoff experience. He's a real, real serious pro, a real, real serious athlete. There are players that play the game for a long time that are good, good players, but then there are players who are very serious and students of the game that with a group like ours, as young as we are, can help teach just by the very fact of what they do on a daily basis."

Video: CHI@WPG: Laine extends streak on Stastny's goal

 

On what he has seen from Hellebuyck's game and his mindset this season that has enabled him to take this next step in his career

"I think the fact that he had the opportunity to have one spin of the calendar, one spin of the season, to understand what it was going to take for him physically and what it would take for him mentally. But then he put those things into action. In the summer, he trained in a different way than he normally would have trained.

"Now, you're talking about a player who checked off every box coming up from college, winning the [Mike] Richter Award, going to the World Championship and being a very good player in the World Championship, going to the American Hockey League and playing very well, coming up initially and playing very well in his first 15-20 games. Now it's that next hurdle, it's that, 'You want to take control of this team, well, take control of this team.' Kudos to him."

 

On his feeling going into April, into the playoffs, as the GM of a team that has never won a playoff game together and is relatively inexperienced

"Every team will go through that at some point in time. I do think that when we made the playoffs a couple years ago we had players like [Jacob] Trouba and Scheifele, who were very young players at that point in time, the experience matters. I remember getting a text from [Anaheim Ducks general manager] Bob Murray after they beat us four straight [in 2015] and we talked about the series not really being a four-straight series because we led in pretty much every game until the end. But that's a learning experience. Sometimes, you learn a lot more from falling short on something than achieving the ultimate success, so I think there's a growth there.

"There's a sense of a real good team bond, and that's why we weren't going to just go get another player for the sake of getting a player at the deadline if it didn't fit. Our group is a tight group. They've accomplished, or gotten to where they've gotten to this point, because of them. It's not because of luck. They've earned it, and I think that's what is going to keep fueling them."

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