Over the past week, the Winnipeg Jets, an organization that desperately strives to keep important matters behind closed doors, has been forced to reckon with the fact that something has gone terribly wrong within its own ranks.
In the days since the Jets were officially eliminated from the NHL playoffs, No. 1 centre Mark Scheifele has questioned his future with the team, despite having two more years remaining on his current deal; veteran forward Paul Stastny has preached a need for accountability and respect among teammates; and captain Blake Wheeler said it feels as though they’re back to square one. Others have described the season as an embarrassment and waste of potential.
Indeed, it’s been quite the pivot for an organization that at the beginning of the year was considered to be among a small group of Stanley Cup contenders. Now, after hearing complaints from some of the most influential players in the locker room, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff is left with the tall task of figuring out how things could have gone so awry.
“You go through an emotional time like these players have, the emotional commitment that they have given or that they were gearing up for, and then the emotional letdown that we have right now when we didn’t achieve it. That’s why we hear a lot of those words,” Cheveldayoff told reporters in his season-ending press conference Monday. “You’ve heard come out of guy’s mouths that they’re disappointed, they wanted more, they feel let down, they feel they let themselves down and they may feel like others let them down. That’s the raw emotion that’s in there. That’s the type of emotion that is in a dressing room.”
The Jets ended the season with a 39-32-11 record, good enough for sixth place in the Central Division and eights point shy of the Nashville Predators for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. They ranked in the bottom half of the league on the power play and penalty kill and were unable to establish a notable stretch of consistent results, with their season-high win streak being just four games.
“I don’t think there’s one guy in that room that didn’t think this was going to be a playoff team,” Cheveldayoff said. “The level of disappointment is because we didn’t even get beyond that.”
Scheifele’s comments were particularly damning and suggested a severely strained culture among the players.
The Jets top centre questioned the team’s structure and said that when he sat down with Cheveldayoff for his exit interview – something he suggested would be a “tough talk” – he wanted to know the direction the club was headed before making any definitive statements about his future. Scheifele just finished the sixth season of an eight-year, US$49 million contract.
Cheveldayoff hadn’t spoken to Scheifele by the time he addressed the media but did watch what he had to say. Rather than risking any further angst, the Jets GM took a more diplomatic approach, adding what he saw from his no. 1 centre was simply a passion for wanting to win.
“It wasn’t just listening to him speak. I’ve listened and heard some of the conversations you’ve had with players over the past week,” the Jets GM said. “With respect to Mark, he is a talented player. He is in the prime of his career, he is all those things that he said he is. He’s a Winnipeg Jet and he wants to win. As an organization we’re going to have to take a little bit of a re-assessment here to see where some things are at, but our goal is to win the Stanley Cup.”
Scheifele, who is one of two alternative captains, along with defenceman Josh Morrissey, and Wheeler have both seemed burdened at times with the responsibility of wearing a letter on their jersey. Given that, Cheveldayoff was asked if he might need to revaluate the leadership group heading into next season.
“There’s going to be lots of conversations amongst whether it’s the leadership group, whether it’s the other players. There’s going to be lots of conversations internally,” Cheveldayoff said. “There’s lots of questions that everyone’s going to want answered. What the course of action moving forward is going to be? That’s what we need to take the time here to figure out and make those hard decisions in that regard.”
Cheveldayoff will also need to find a new contract for centre Pierre-Luc Dubois, who is coming off a season where he registered a career-high 28 goals, along with 32 assists for 60 points in 81 games. Dubois is set to become a restricted free agent this summer and will have arbitration rights.
Inking Dubois to a long-term deal was already a top priority. But it’s made all the more important if things can’t get smoothed out with Scheifele.
“He knows squarely where we stand with respect to what we think about him and what we’d like to accomplish,” Cheveldayoff said of Dubois. “The business side of the game will have to take care of itself.”
The Jets GM understands the importance of this offseason. Cheveldayoff said he’s committed to building a winner and planned to once again spend near the salary cap.
With fans frustrated with the team’s results in recent years, a sense of apathy has started to settle in, with attendance dropping from an average of 15,794 during the 2019-20 season to 12,716 per game this past year. A strong summer will be an important part to regaining that confidence.
“There are lots of people that really deeply care about the fans and the city of Winnipeg. We know we have a responsibility to this organization to put its best foot forward,” Cheveldayoff said. “The business side is certainly something I care about. I care about the fans. There isn’t a day that goes by that you don’t feel that responsibility to the city of Winnipeg and the great fans we have. They make a difference.”
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.