WINNIPEG — Rick Bowness and Kevin Cheveldayoff were in a particularly generous mood at Hockey For All Centre on Wednesday, offering plenty of clues about the Jets’ immediate plans.
If everything goes well, the Jets will add at the trade deadline.
Winnipeg is inching closer to clarity on Connor Hellebuyck and Mark Scheifele’s futures but “winning is everything” and nothing is etched in stone.
The Jets have job openings on the power play, giving some opportunity for Nikolaj Ehlers, Cole Perfetti and Gabriel Vilardi to push Winnipeg’s goal scoring back into the top half of the league. Perfetti will start camp as Winnipeg’s second-line centre, with Bowness going as far as to share all four of his intended lines.
There was also a lot of wisdom to be gleaned from reading between the lines as Bowness and Cheveldayoff spoke. There was a change in tone, for example, as Cheveldayoff put the focus on winning now with more emphasis than at any point during the offseason. There is pressure building to find resolution on Scheifele and Hellebuyck and, even though nothing is imminent, a big part of Winnipeg’s pitch is that the Jets are ready to win here and now.
Here are our seven biggest takeaways from our wide-ranging, revealing and sometimes even philosophical check-ins with Winnipeg’s head coach and GM.
Winnipeg is loudly, proudly, officially in “win now” mode
Cheveldayoff did everything in his power not to commit the Jets’ offseason to a path at last season’s media exit interview. He was asked about the direction of the franchise multiple times and, citing the need to evaluate, he dodged that question multiple ways.
Then he traded Pierre-Luc Dubois for Vilardi, Alex Iafallo, Rasmus Kupari and Montreal’s second-round pick in 2024 and bought out Blake Wheeler. When we inferred a “win now” path from his actions and asked what it meant for Scheifele and Hellebuyck, Cheveldayoff said he was open to anything and so were each of his players. It was typically Cheveldayoff-ian: We can be sure he had a plan and a set of hopes but he did his best not to reveal any of them.
Then, starting in an interview with The Athletic’s Michael Russo at September’s GM meetings in Chicago, Cheveldayoff changed his tune.
“Our singular focus is winning,” Cheveldayoff said. “That’s what we’re all about.”
He doubled down on that approach at Hockey For All Centre on Wednesday. Whenever he was asked about Hellebuyck and Scheifele, Chevelayoff talked about winning — and soon.
“We’re here to play the game and we’re here to win. That’s what this group, I think, is really going to be focused on,” Cheveldayoff said, before referring to the Stanley Cup as Winnipeg’s ultimate goal. “Once you get (to the playoffs), you have to pay the price, you have to do the things, you have to take it one step further to try and achieve your ultimate goal. We didn’t do that. I think everyone to a man knows that the process starts now.”
Great. The GM wants to win. Why so much attention?
Cheveldayoff is clearly giving this exact same pitch to Hellebuyck and Scheifele right now. In addition to his own ambitions, Cheveldayoff knows his star players are committed to winning, above all else. Hellebuyck has gone so far as to say it’s Stanley Cup or bust for him at this stage of his career and Cheveldayoff knows his Hellebuyck retention campaign runs part and parcel with Winnipeg’s ability to win. The two met recently in Winnipeg.
“It was a good meeting, you know,” Cheveldayoff said. “We sat down, we chatted, and again, he’s been at this for a very long time now. A lot of the focus from the meeting is that is what I said: we’re going to try to win.”
If he’s saying it to his superstars and sharing it with the media, Cheveldayoff clearly means it. It’s why a package of futures was not in the cards for Dubois, for one. Now, with Hellebuyck and Scheifele at least theoretically open to extensions, Cheveldayoff knows how important it is to convince all parties that the playoffs are within reach and the Stanley Cup is possible — right here in Winnipeg.
He spoke to that topic again when discussing Winnipeg’s salary cap.
If all goes well, Winnipeg will be buyers at the trade deadline
“The way we are sitting right now, it looks like we should have some ability to accrue cap space as we’re built right now or we’re projected to be built like,” Cheveldayoff said. “Hopefully, that translates into opportunities moving forward.”
It was a short statement within a longer thought. Cheveldayoff also shared that the Jets were cautious with respect to the cap maximum last season because they knew they’d be paying bonuses to Perfetti as part of his entry-level contract.
This big reveal, of course, depends on these numbers:
Winnipeg will start the season with approximately $2.5 million in cap space. As Cheveldayoff said, Winnipeg will be able to accrue space throughout the year. Winnipeg isn’t using LTIR this season — and hasn’t since it traded Bryan Little’s contract to Arizona. This means the Jets’ cap space gets calculated daily and prorated: If the Jets stay $2.5 million under the cap from the day the season starts, they’ll be able to add over $11.5 million in contracts by deadline day.
Put simply: If Winnipeg is good this season, well-entrenched in a playoff spot or challenging for the postseason, Cheveldayoff has the ability and the ambition to make additions to his team.
What about Hellebuyck and Scheifele, though? Cheveldayoff touched on that, too.
Scheifele and Hellebuyck negotiations are ongoing but nothing is imminent
The first time Cheveldayoff was asked about his star players on expiring contracts, he talked about the leaguewide cap crunch for several paragraphs before pivoting to the quotes we used above with respect to winning.
Asked more directly for a timeline on decisions with respect to Scheifele and Hellebuyck, Cheveldayoff left things open-ended.
“I don’t have a time frame, per se, on anything right now,” he said.
It’s a positive turn for Winnipeg that conversations are ongoing. Both players appear open to discussions. It’s also important to remember that the Jets, as drawn up on paper, are probably a playoff team — especially with Hellebuyck backed up by Laurent Brossoit and Scheifele coming off a 42-goal season.
Still, it’s impossible to ignore that the Jets have limited runway to work with here. Positive conversations are great but, at some point, the Jets will need to know they can sign Hellebuyck, Scheifele or both. If not, then Winnipeg will be forced to make an excruciating decision at the trade deadline. Trade star players from a “win now” team? Or keep those stars, sell them as self-rentals, and risk losing them for nothing next summer?
Cheveldayoff said it’s about the process right now. He hopes Winnipeg is good enough and playoff-bound but knows nothing is guaranteed.
“I wouldn’t rule out anything at this point in time,” Cheveldayoff said. “And I hope we’re in that situation where those tough decisions have to be made. It’s about winning.”
It’s that kind of “hope” talk about tough deadline-day decisions that has me wondering if nothing is imminent with either player. If winning is, in fact, what it’s all about, then a little bit of wait and see makes perfect sense. They’ll want to know if Winnipeg is as ready to win as Cheveldayoff says it is.
Perfetti is going to start out as Winnipeg’s second-line centre
Bowness gave this to us directly. We covered the pros and cons of Perfetti’s centre candidacy in our training camp preview.
I also talked about it on “Winnipeg Sports Talk” on Wednesday.
— Winnipeg Sports Talk (@SportsTalkWPG) September 20, 2023
Perfetti will start training camp between Nino Niederreiter and Ehlers, giving him every chance to make use of his vision and hockey sense. Offensively, it’s easy to see Perfetti holding onto the puck and then making the right reads, putting the puck on the high-flying Ehlers’ stick in productive lanes and helping Niederreiter get to the net as he loves to do. Defensively, Perfetti will need to make the right reads at high speed, getting into good positions like Paul Stastny once did before him. Stastny wasn’t a burner or a bruiser either but he was always in the right place and effective as a result.
“With Dubie gone, there’s an opening there,” Bowness said. “We drafted him as a centreman and we’re going to give him every opportunity to play centre.”
“Going back, you look at some of Gabe’s most successful times last year, I think was on the wing,” Cheveldayoff said of the decision to put Vilardi on Scheifele’s right wing. “I think he can ramp up his production there.”
Kupari is a roster lock
“Rasmus will start at centre on that fourth line (but) he may move up,” Bowness said. “We don’t a lot about him because he wasn’t used a lot in L.A. So we’re going to give all those three a great opportunity to find the chemistry with the right guys. We’re certainly going to give Rasmus a lot more ice time so we can figure out exactly what we have to work with.”
We laid this out in our training camp preview but there is only one forward spot truly up for grabs as camp begins. The Jets value Kupari and, even if he takes some time to get used to his new surroundings, Winnipeg won’t be waiving a key piece of the Dubois trade return. The 6-foot-2, 201-pound, right-handed centre will get his shot.
In fact, let’s just call these the forward lines
Connor — Scheifele — Vilardi
Niederreiter — Perfetti — Ehlers
Iafallo — Lowry — Appleton
Barron — Kupari — Namestnikov
Bowness gave us these lines directly on Wednesday and there’s a lot to like about them. Kyle Connor, Scheifele and Vilardi are dangerous offensive players from the top of the circles in. No one jumps into space at Scheifele’s preferred time better than Connor does, while I see Vilardi as a good fit because of the way he read off his linemates with the Kings. He’s a heads-up player who knows how to create space, protect the puck and exploit holes in defensive coverage.
I might prefer Iafallo on Perfetti’s wing, given the quality of his defensive play, and Niederreiter alongside Lowry based on the way they dominated as linemates last season. Niederreiter and Iafallo are both versatile, intelligent players and one imagines the transition to new linemates is smooth. Mason Appleton gets his old job on the third line. He scored at a 32-point pace last season; I’d expect at least that number from anyone who plays inside Winnipeg’s top nine this year.
To that end, it seems possible that Vladislav Namestnikov will climb up this depth chart, based on the diversity of roles he filled down the stretch last season. As much as these groupings indicate Bowness’ preferred starting point, nothing is set in stone.
Finally, David Gustafsson strikes me as Winnipeg’s most likely 13th forward. The towering 23-year-old Swedish centre is the only player among candidates Axel Jonsson-Fjallby, Jansen Harkins and Dominic Toninato that the Jets didn’t put on waivers last season.
The power play will be a key focus this season, by the way, and will probably be revamped. Bowness sounded unhappy with Winnipeg’s 20th-place finish on the power play, wants more offence and has holes to plug now that Dubois and Wheeler are gone.
“Our power play has to get better. We do want to score more goals,” Bowness said.
I asked him about potential replacements.
“Nik is going to be out there, there’s no question. We’ve got to keep him healthy. He had some tough injuries last year, we forget about those things. Which affected his ice time. Certainly Nik’s going to be out there, Cole’s going to be out there, Gabe’s going to be out there. Those are things until we get out on the ice there in training camp and see what the best fit and where the best chemistry is.”
Chisholm is starting training camp from a long way back
We may see some changes to the Jets’ traditional defensive partnerships this season. No Jets defenceman is in the same training camp group as his most common partner from last year. The pairings from last season are impossible based on how Bowness laid out his groups:
Morrissey — DeMelo
Dillon — Pionk
Samberg — Schmidt
Instead, look for Josh Morrissey to mentor a young defenceman at camp. He’s in a group with Neal Pionk, Ashton Sautner, Simon Lundmark, Dylan Samberg, Elias Salomonsson, Dmitry Kuzmin, Logan Stanley and Kyle Capobianco.
Declan Chisholm is the subject of much waiver wire discussion right now and he’ll be in tough to win a job. He’s in a group with Dylan DeMelo, Brenden Dillon, Ville Heinola, Jimmy Oligny, Tyrel Bauer, Artemi Kniazev, Nate Schmidt, Dean Stewart and Simon Kubicek and, while this gives Chisholm plenty of opportunity to skate alongside veteran mentors, he’s in tough for an NHL job.
Bowness spoke to the logjam on defence on Wednesday.
“It always goes back to (the fact) players will eventually cut themselves, based on how they play,” he said. “So we’re going to give (Ville Heinola) and we’re going to give (Chisholm), we’re going to give those guys every opportunity to show what they can and then, if they play great like we’re hoping they will, then we’re going to have to make some tough decisions at the end of camp.”
The idea of Heinola winning a job from any one of the nine defencemen who need waivers strikes me as far-fetched on a cautious, “win now” Jets team. For Bowness to lump Chisholm in with Heinola — about whom he used the same “players eventually cut themselves” line last season — firmly establishes Chisholm on the outside, looking in.
This isn’t to say Chisholm can’t fight his way into the conversation with a tremendous training camp. That story has yet to be written. At the moment, he’s starting from a long way back in terms of trying to convince the Jets he’s worthy of an NHL job.
I asked Cheveldayoff if losing Johnathan Kovacevic to waivers last season influences how he’ll handle waivers this time around.
“Waivers are an interesting thing. We’ve made some waiver claims. We’ve lost some players on waiver claims. You don’t know. It’s a crap shoot, so to speak. You just have to make your evaluations based on the best information that you have at the time. You go from there. It doesn’t necessarily force you to do one thing or another. Players earn their opportunities to get to that point. We’re just looking to put the best six, seven, eight guys on the roster,” he said.
Chisholm is a good, young player. I’m not sure he’s someone the Jets are willing to make room for. It’s a competitive industry and, if Chisholm is going to take a job, he’s going to have to earn it beyond question. The same applies to Heinola, whose waiver exemption seems like a one-way ticket to the Moose.
(Photo of Connor Hellebuyck, Mark Scheifele and Adam Lowry: Christopher Hanewinckel / USA Today)