Winnipeg Jets General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff received plenty of “attaboys” from outside sources for what was a very productive off-season for the franchise.
The boxes Cheveldayoff checked off included the trade acquisitions of veteran defensemen Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt from Washington and Vancouver for draft picks; re-signing unrestricted free agent forward Paul Stastny; and avoiding arbitration for the second time in three years with restricted free agent forward Andrew Copp.
“We managed to get done all the work we needed to get done in the summertime,” said Cheveldayoff. “But you just never know how things are going to play out. You never want to overestimate anything or see how it goes. A couple of injuries here and there and obviously you may have to pivot on some things.”
And when Cheveldayoff met with members of the Winnipeg media on Friday following the second day of training camp at Bell MTS IcePlex, ironically one of the first orders of business was to share an injury update on second-year defenseman Dylan Samberg who was hurt the day before when he got tangled up in a drill and fell awkwardly.
“Dylan’s got a high ankle sprain. It’s one of those they talk about – whether it’s six to eight weeks,” said Cheveldayoff. “But it’s one of those, we’re going to give it as much time as it needs so that it’s not something that lingers.”
What probably makes the mishap even more painful for the 22-year-old six-foot-three, 190-pound blueliner from Hermantown, Minn., is that he was one of the players head coach Paul Maurice had planned on giving a long look at during the preseason.
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“This was his first training camp, he hasn’t had a chance to play an exhibition game yet, and unfortunately he gets hurt on the first day,” said the Jets hockey boss. “You have to roll with the punches, and for him, he’s going to come back stronger and keep battling.”
Cheveldayoff expects the other young up-and-comers in camp to certainly be “engaged” in the competition for the handful of jobs that are available.
“You’ve got guys on defense like Ville (Heinola). You’ve got guys like Ves (Kristian Vesalainen) learning a new position,” was Cheveldayoff’s response to being asked about the training camp battles he was anticipating. “There’s fourth-line battles that are obviously going to be there. (It’s) essentially the first training camp for Cole Perfetti to see where it’s at for him.”
One of the more interesting names competing for a job on the fourth line is former Red Wing prospect Evgeny Svechnikov, who is attending camp on a pro tryout after being signed to an AHL contract by the Manitoba Moose following his release by Detroit over the summer. And Cheveldayoff says Winnipeg’s interest in the six-foot-three, 208-pound forward goes back to when Svechnikov was selected 19th overall in the 2015 NHL entry draft.
“He was a player back in his draft year that we had a lot of interest in. We actually flew him into Winnipeg,” recalled Cheveldayoff. “He had an ankle surgery back then and we wanted to make sure our doctors saw what the injury was like. For whatever reason, he became available in the summertime. For us, it was a guy who can play the right side.”
Svechnikov is also one of those players who will have the opportunity to showcase his talents during the preseason, according to the coach and the GM. The one-time junior linemate of Pierre-Luc Dubois has skated with highly probable fourth-liners Riley Nash and Jansen Harkins during the first two days of camp. And Cheveldayoff says there is room for another NHL minimum contract of US$750,000 if Svechnikov is up to the task.
“You’ve built your organization here with some guys that are at that,” said Cheveldayoff. “So you’ve left yourself room in your budget for those kind of players.”
Winnipeg Jets ‘free’ defenceman Sami Niku
Part of that available cap space was created by a mutual termination of the one-year, US$725,000 contract of defenseman Sami Niku earlier this week. And on Friday Niku signed a one-year, two-way contract for virtually the same amount with Montreal. Cheveldayoff didn’t get into too many specifics in his explanation of how the slight but highly-skilled Finn went from being an AHL Frist Team All Star and League Defenseman of the Year to a player no longer of interest to the Jets.
“There’s a couple of different things along the way that obviously hurt Sami. The one training camp (2019) where we were expecting big things from him, and he got in a car accident on the way to the rink. Getting ready to come back he pulled his groin. Sometimes timing in this game begins to work against you,” offered Cheveldayoff somewhat philosophically. “You as a player need to do the certain things you need to do in order to push yourself ahead of someone else. This game here, you have to earn your job. You have to win that right to play ahead of some other talented players. And each year there’s a new crop of players that come in. There’s a Ville Heinola, there’s a Samberg.”
Not to mention Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt being added, at or near the top of the organizational depth chart. And it’s the presence of those two players in particular that has elevated the Jets from mid-level status to being considered a legitimate Top Ten contender. But Cheveldayoff says expectation always runs high at this time of the year.
“It’s a good group, I think there’s a level of excitement from the players,” said Cheveldayoff. “You want a chance to win. As a player that’s what you’re hoping for. Hopefully we gave our group a little boost.”
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