This is the final file of the THN Hot Seat, a series of THN.com columns where we’ve identified one member of each NHL team who’ll be dealing with a notable amount of pressure in the 2022-23 season. Our pick for the Hot Seat can be an NHL player, head coach, team owner, or GM.
In this file, we’re focusing on the Winnipeg Jets.
JETS HOT SEAT: KEVIN CHEVELDAYOFF, GENERAL MANAGER
WHY: It wasn’t all that long ago when the Jets were seen to be a team on the rise; four years ago, they’d made it to the Western Conference Final, before falling in five games to the Vegas Golden Knights. As a result, GM Cheveldayoff received deserved acclaim. But since then, the Jets have, for the most part, been an example of the law of diminishing returns, and they bottomed out this past season, first suffering the indignity of head coach Paul Maurice walking away from his job, then missing the playoffs for the first time since 2017, and finishing sixth in the Central Division, ahead of only Chicago and Arizona.
So, since he received fair praise for their growth as a team, Cheveldayoff is now facing fair criticism for the setbacks the Jets have suffered. While Central teams around them made significant additions to their roster this summer, the Jets have done next to nothing – other than signing journeyman forward Sam Gagner to replace a better player in Paul Stastny, and adding veteran backup David Rittich to serve as Connor Hellebuyck’s understudy – in an attempt to improve. Cheveldayoff still has approximately (and per CapFriendly.com) $5.5 million in salary cap space, but there aren’t difference-makers available to invest that money in.
Cheveldayoff also has a brand new head coach in former Dallas bench boss Rick Bowness, but again, there’s the sense Winnipeg settled on their second choice, with Manitoba native Barry Trotz preferring to stay on the sidelines rather than take the Jets’ job. It’s not that Bowness did a horrible job with the Stars last season; it’s the fact that Winnipeg waited and waited on Trotz before he forced them to go in another direction that takes the shine off the Bowness signing.
Worse still is the depth – or lack thereof – in Winnipeg’s group of forwards. Winnipeg had a mediocre offense last season (tied for 14th overall at an average of 3.05 goals-for per game), and a sub-par defense (tied for 16th overall at 3.09 goals-against per game), and neither area appears to be on the upswing in 2022-23. The Jets have a solid-enough top-two forward lines, but the dropoff after that is quite severe. Similarly, their defense corps has keepers in Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk and Nate Schmidt, but their other three top defenders aren’t needle-movers.
It’s not all bad news for Winnipeg. They still have an elite goalie in Hellebuyck, who is coming off his worst season in five years, and who should rebound if he gets more support from his teammates. But there’s the rub: are we really expecting the Jets to surge in the standings? Yes, it’s accurate to point out the injury bug took a serious chomp out of Winnipeg’s lineup last season – star forwards Blake Wheeler, Nik Ehlers all missed at least 15 games – but many other teams were able to absorb injury blows because of their depth. The Jets, at this point, do not possess enough NHL-level talent to withstand more serious injuries this season. And you have to ask yourself, which of the Central teams that finished ahead of them last year will they be better than in 2022-23? The Stars? Possibly. The Nashville Predators? Also possibly. The St. Louis Blues, Minnesota Wild, and Stanley Cup-champion Colorado Avalanche? Almost certainly not. And when you factor in the fact the Pacific Division is improved and likely will take back one of the playoff berths they lost to the Central last year, it feels like a playoff spot is even less of a possibility for Winnipeg.
So, if the Jets do stumble out of the gate and/or miss out on the post-season for the second consecutive year, what justification does Cheveldayoff have to keep his job? He’s been the only GM Winnipeg has had since June of 2011. Eleven years in the job is a great run for any hockey executive, but while there’s something to be said for the loyalty of team owner Mark Chipman, the reality is it’s time for a new architect for the Jets. They can’t continue accepting mediocrity in the hope one of these years will feature a deep playoff run for them.
Cheveldayoff can’t blame any further failures on the coach. He also can’t deal away relative greybeards like Wheeler and Schmidt and expect the Jets will suddenly reverse their current trajectory. It may not be time for a full-on rebuild, but it’s also not advisable for them to stay the course.
Something has to give.