The 2019 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic between the Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets will be played at Mosaic Stadium in Regina, Saskatchewan, on Saturday (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NBCSN, CBC, SN1, CITY, TVAS2, NHL.TV). NHL.com spoke with the general managers of the Flames and Jets for an update on the state of their teams in the days leading to the outdoor game. Today, Kevin Cheveldayoff of the Winnipeg Jets.
Kevin Cheveldayoff gets straight to the point when discussing the Winnipeg Jets as they prepare to play in the 2019 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic against the Calgary Flames in Regina, Saskatchewan, on Saturday.
"Certainly, it's been a work in progress," the general manager said of the Jets, who are 4-5-0 and have lost three straight games.
Of the six defensemen who played in their most recent game, a 3-1 loss to the New York Islanders on Thursday, only Josh Morrissey and Dmitry Kulikov were on the roster last season, when the Jets finished with 99 points, second in the Central Division, and were eliminated in six games by the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Jacob Trouba was traded to the New York Rangers on June 17; Tyler Myers signed with the Vancouver Canucks on July 1; Ben Chiarot signed with the Montreal Canadiens on July 4; and Dustin Byfuglien is suspended, pondering his future in the NHL.
The Jets have allowed 3.67 goals per game this season, sixth worst in the NHL, in large part because of the upheaval with their defensemen.
Forwards Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor each missed most of training camp while negotiating a contract. The restricted free agents signed less than a week before the season began, Laine getting a two-year, $13.5 million contract Sept. 27, and Connor signing a seven-year, $50 million contract Sept. 28.
There have been injuries as well, with center Bryan Little out since a Sept. 29 preseason game at the Minnesota Wild with a concussion; forward Mark Letestu out since Oct. 14 with an undisclosed injury; and defensemen Sami Niku (out since training camp) and Anthony Bitetto (out since Oct. 15) each sidelined with a lower-body injury.
"Some of it was what we anticipated based on some of the decisions we made with respect to the [NHL] salary cap and contracts, and some has not been stuff we anticipated," Cheveldayoff said. "But I think the guys have done a good job of focusing on the task at hand here and we've got a lot of work ahead of us."
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The Jets have two home games, including against the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday (7 p.m. ET; ESPN+, SN1, NHL.TV), before playing the Flames in their second outdoor game in four seasons, but Cheveldayoff is already thinking about what the game will mean to Regina.
"I think the Heritage Classic is something they'll rally around," he said, "a great opportunity to see a unique type of experience."
With the outdoor game less than a week away, Cheveldayoff spoke to NHL.com about several topics pertaining to the Jets and the Heritage Classic.
The Jets were able to sign restricted free agent forwards Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor before the season started. How much of a relief was that?
"It was unfinished business that needed to get finished. We worked hard at it, maybe too long but we worked hard at it and it's good that we've come to conclusions on both of those fronts and those players can now do what they love to do and what they do best, which is play. At training camp itself, without Patrik and Kyle, I think the coaches and players did an amazing job of keeping focus and understanding that the business side was the business side and that it would take care of itself."
When the Jets signed Laine you said you would welcome the good problem you'd have if he scored a lot in the next two seasons. Can you expand on that?
"If you look at the [NHL salary] cap situation we're faced with right now, we had to fit certain things in certain ways. Some of these deals are designed for the short term. Some are designed for the long term. Obviously with a player like Patrik, we think his ceiling is going to continue to rise and if you look at the [annual average value] and what was actually bought in other contracts in the League and the term of those contracts, we think we're in a good spot to be able to field the team we wanted to field right now. With higher AAVs, we'd have had to make even more changes. We think we're well-positioned for the future."
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Is there any update on Dustin Byfuglien?
"No. Status quo there."
The Jets are among the youngest teams in the League again this season, and there are two teenagers on your roster, 18-year-old defenseman Ville Heinola and 19-year-old forward David Gustafsson. You have been clear in the past about not rushing development, so this seems a little unusual. How do you think they are they doing?
"We are both pleased and excited that two young players are earning their way into games. With it being their first NHL camps, they have been very receptive to learning about what the expectations are to play in the NHL and have taken nothing for granted. We've always been open-minded. If you look at our history, we've sent 18-year-olds back to junior and we've also kept an 18-year-old in the past. Same with 19- and 20-year-olds. It really comes down to the players seizing opportunities that are in front of them and gaining the coach's confidence. It's a tough league and whether a player is here for the long term at 18 or 19, well, there are pros and cons to both sides of it. There are challenges along the way and if, in fact, both of them stay on the roster for the rest of the season, there will be ups and downs. We don't expect all smooth sailing. It's a tough, long grind of the season."
You were born in Saskatoon and have plenty of family and friends in Saskatchewan. How will the Heritage Classic play out in your home province?
"Saskatchewan is a very passionate sports market. You see it with the pride in the Roughriders (of the Canadian Football League) and what they mean to the entire province. I haven't been to the new stadium, but I hear it's a fantastic stadium and it should play out very well for a great NHL event."
The Jets played the Oilers in the 2016 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic in Winnipeg. Is the organization eager to continue participating in outdoor games?
"You want to be good partners with the League, and it's important to try to grow the game. Ultimately, it's about entertainment and to try to expand everyone's footprint so in this case, with Saskatchewan not having an NHL team of its own, it's a natural they'd pull from both sides of their borders and this will be a good experience for Flames fans, Jets fans and also for the people of Saskatchewan."