In 2015, the Winnipeg Jets made their first post-season appearance since returning to Manitoba’s capital, and with their stable of prospects, it won’t be their last. If the Jets can develop their young players, they could be competing for more than just a playoff spot by the end of the decade.
All right, let’s get one thing out of the way. It gets cold in Winnipeg. Ten months of winter and two months of bad skating. Heh-heh. The day this piece was written in mid-February, it was forecasted to go down to minus-38. Don’t bother with the Celsius to Fahrenheit calculations. When it’s that cold, they’re pretty much the same. There are bigger cities in the NHL (about 25 of them) that play in bigger arenas (about 29). There are other places where a star can slide right under the radar if he wants. There are places with lower taxes and places where your Bentley won’t get wrecked by road salt. There are places with a few more entertainment options.
These are the obstacles the Winnipeg Jets face when it comes to attracting free agents and getting players to waive their no-trade clauses to go there. In fact, a recent informal study found Winnipeg and Edmonton to be the two least desirable destinations in the NHL. Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff talks about how well the organization treats its players and how, once they get there, players actually like it. But when your only exposure to the place is a road trip in the middle of the winter, perception sometimes becomes reality. “It’s not shocking for me that people don’t understand what Winnipeg is all about,” Cheveldayoff said. “They haven’t been here for a long time. I do believe that once we get a player here and they see how we treat the players, they’ll want to stay. We’ve said it from Day 1, once players come here, they’re going to enjoy being here. And we know the kids we draft and the kids we develop, they’re going to know from Day 1 what it’s like to be part of the Jets family, and they’re going to embrace that.”
And there you have it. If you can’t entice players to your organization because they don’t like hockey weather or they’re too closed-minded, then you get the players who have no choice in the matter and get them to fall in love with the place. Drafting and developing has never been a more important tool in the NHL than it is in the salary cap era. And it’s even more so for places like Winnipeg, where cultivating your own talent is more practical than poaching it from other teams. On that count, the Jets get a gold star and a direct route to the head of the class. Their group of non-NHL prospects and under-22 players on their roster is the best in the NHL, according to a panel of 13 scouts, GMs and directors of player personnel. And if their prospect group wasn’t good enough already, Cheveldayoff added two more in
Joel Armia and
Brendan Lemieux in the
Evander Kane trade with the Buffalo Sabres. Not only that, he has another late first-round pick coming to him in that deal. Combined with the Jets as they’re currently constituted – a good, fast, young team with a progressive coach – the future looks outstanding. Like, Stanley Cup contender outstanding. As we already have the Buffalo Sabres pencilled in for the Cup in 2020, we’re picking the Jets and their band of young stars to be parading down Portage Avenue with the silver chalice in the spring of 2019. Caveat: grain of salt required. In our 1991 Draft Preview edition, we chose the Jets to win the Stanley Cup within five years. Not only did they not win the Cup in that time, they ceased to exist five years later. But you get the idea. The Jets have loaded up on young talent and have held onto it. And they have every position covered. In the NHL,
Jacob Trouba has the makings of an outstanding two-way defenseman.
Mark Scheifele has all kinds of speed and skill, and
Adam Lowry is establishing himself as a big, imposing force up front.
Blake Wheeler and
Bryan Little, two of the team’s top forwards, are signed long-term, as are
Tobias Enstrom and
Tyler Myers, two of their key defensemen. When it comes to their prospects, they have the most dangerous offensive player in the QMJHL in
Nikolaj Ehlers and a host of other productive players in Lemieux,
Nic Petan and
Andrew Copp. They have one of Canada’s world junior goalies in
Eric Comrie and also a rookie backstopping their AHL team in
Josh Morrissey was named to the WJC all-star team, and Armia looks ready for NHL duty. But the Jets and Cheveldayoff have had to be among the league’s elite when it comes to drafting and developing. That’s because it took Cheveldayoff almost four full years to make an NHL player-for-NHL player trade. In that time, he didn’t move a single Jets prospect of note and gave up only one second-round pick – in what turned out to be a bad deal with the Minnesota Wild for
Devin Setoguchi in 2013. Before making his blockbuster with Buffalo, Cheveldayoff had traded away more picks than he got back, though all but a handful of them were after the third round and none of them in the first. So if his scouts were doing their jobs well, and it looks as though they were, the Jets should have a healthy stable of young players preparing for the NHL. But it also requires an organizational philosophy that centers on building through the draft. And the Jets, unlike a lot of other teams, are in a market where they had a couple years to grow. The folks in Winnipeg waited a long time to get their NHL team back and were willing to give the new management team a honeymoon period of non-playoff finishes before they started getting restless. That time, though, had come, which led some to the opinion that it was time to start parlaying some of those assets into roster players from other teams. After all, before making the post-season this past season, it’d been eight years, going back to the Atlanta days, since this organization last played a playoff game, which was the second longest current drought in the NHL next to Edmonton. “(It had) been a long time, no question,” Cheveldayoff said. “But the process we started the day we took over is a slow one. It’s not one where you’re going to get instant gratification. It’s been a full, methodical process, but we’re seeing the fruits of our labor right now. We’ll look at all our options, but we’re excited with the group of young players we have, and we think some of them are going to turn the corner quickly and be contributors at the NHL level.” And it’s interesting to note these aren’t your father’s Jets. This is a team in a new rink that sells 15,004 tickets for each game and has cost certainty on its side. Where teams now have to take advantage of their financial positions is off the ice, investing in resources and people that aren’t constrained by a salary cap. To that end, the Jets have seven pro scouts and 14 full- and part-time amateur scouts, a scouting co-ordinator, a director of fitness and a two-man player development department. That’s one of the larger staffs in the NHL devoted to something that is a make or break aspect of the game. It helps that the Jets have a decent economy, new building and well-heeled bosses with an appreciation for the long term. “We have an ownership group that is extremely committed to doing things the right way,” Cheveldayoff said. “From Day 1, they’ve viewed drafting and developing as an investment, not as an expense. When you get into the boardroom and start dealing with budgets and things like that, the easiest thing to cut is something you don’t see. You barely see the amateur scouts because they’re on the road all the time and it’s an easy cut. But in that aspect, we’ve never been shortchanged.” Everything is set for the Jets to have a future full of serious Stanley Cup runs. With a management team that has finally begun to address the present, while keeping an eye to the future, the Jets are on the precipice of something special. We’re predicting a Stanley Cup in 2019. After all, when you’ve waited as long as Winnipeg has to get your team back, what’s a couple more years to bide your time for the top prize?
This feature appears in the Playoff Preview 2015 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.