How the Toronto Maple Leafs made the right decisions at the right times and finally, after nearly two decades, survived the first round of the playoffs and waved away some ghosts.
WINNIPEG — The word count was high, but the contents left plenty to be desired and the unveiling of the vision quite frankly didn’t occur at any point of the conversation.
Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff didn’t offer a hint of what could be on the horizon, unless he’s really considering running it back one more time.
Welcome to the final act of Winnipeg Jets exit meetings, where Cheveldayoff spent nearly 43 minutes engaged in a back-and-forth session with reporters that was testy at times and almost unbelievably hollow at others.
“That core got us to five of six playoffs as well. That can’t be lost,” said Cheveldayoff. “You play the sport to have that opportunity to get into the playoffs, and that’s what that core did more times than not.”
Fresh off receiving a vote of confidence from governor and co-owner Mark Chipman to return for a 13th consecutive season at the helm, the expectation was that Cheveldayoff might be able to provide a glimpse of the direction the organization planned to go this offseason.
A full unveiling of his platform would have been a welcome change, but by the time he had spoken roughly 5,500 words, about the only concrete thing he revealed was that head coach Rick Bowness would be returning for his second season with the Jets.
Other than that, Cheveldayoff spent more time debating with reporters over the definition of success and taking umbrage with the suggestion that winning one round since the 2018 run to the Western Conference final constitutes a successful run.
Cheveldayoff prefers to focus on qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs five times during the past six seasons, though he conveniently omitted the fact one of those appearances was in the qualifying round when 20 teams were involved — including four in a best-of-three situation during the pandemic season.
Nobody was questioning how hard it is to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs or how hard it is to win, but Cheveldayoff’s reluctance to raise the standard led to eyebrows being raised by many media members inside the room and plenty of others who had tuned in on the livestream.
Was Cheveldayoff saying that making it to the dance was enough?
Not exactly, though the question remains, don’t the standards need to be higher around these parts?
The Jets have won a grand total of three rounds during Cheveldayoff’s tenure.
As much as Cheveldayoff hates references to the window of contention, it can’t be ignored that this core group — as currently constructed — hasn’t been able to deliver the goods on the big stage.
No matter what argument Cheveldayoff was trying to make on Sunday.
“This core that we talk about here right now has had some good success. Granted we haven’t won the championship,” said Cheveldayoff. “These are things that, again, you try to aspire to do. Sometimes you fall short. But it shouldn’t diminish the good things that you try to accomplish.
“So we’re not sitting here waving any banners or anything like that, that’s unfortunate, but there’s a lot of good people in that room that pushed this organization to a good place.”
Although Cheveldayoff was probably trying to be cheeky when responding to a question about life after 2018, his crack about not letting the facts get in the way of a good story came off as both arrogant and out of touch.
Even if he didn’t like the phrasing of the question, why get your back up over it?
In this case, the facts are indisputable.
These Jets have not been able to reach their collective goals and part of the reason is that they don’t have the right mix.
Being able to draft, develop and retain core pieces remains an essential piece of the puzzle here.
And yes, the Jets get credit for being able to convince some of those core pieces to stick around and commit to the organization, something Cheveldayoff seemed to be lobbying for in one of his answers.
What Bowness has done to bring improvement to the defensive structure was an important step forward, even with the second-half stumble and five-game exit in the first round.
Incremental steps have to be made, but that doesn’t mean it’s enough.
If anything, the revelation from this season should have informed Cheveldayoff and company that it wasn’t just a new voice that was required.
Bringing in new pieces to the puzzle is a must for this program to move forward.
It doesn’t mean blow it up, though the group could look significantly different if Cheveldayoff isn’t able to convince some of those core pieces who are pending unrestricted free agents in 2024 to sign on the dotted line and stick around.
The eternal optimist, goalie Connor Hellebuyck, conceded in his year-end meeting with reporters that the individual pieces on the Jets are great but maybe it just wasn’t the right mix.
That should have set off the alarm bells for Cheveldayoff, since Hellebuyck is the same guy who famously said he felt the Jets could be on the verge of a dynasty.
Now it’s entirely possible that Cheveldayoff was simply trying to keep his cards close to the vest and was trying not to diminish the trade value of his potential off-season chips.
“It’s hard to get into the specifics right now. Every situation is different,” said Cheveldayoff, who clearly must get an idea of what Hellebuyck, Mark Scheifele and Pierre-Luc Dubois are thinking during the coming weeks. “You have to be comfortable going in multiple different directions if that’s what you feel is correct. That’s what we’ll take the time to do and we’ll make those assessments and plan accordingly.”
But when asked a follow-up question about not allowing the organization to go into rebuilding mode, Cheveldayoff’s response was the latest thing to fall into the category of a half measure.
When pressed, he said he couldn’t commit either way and that he wouldn’t have a true answer until he had more information to mull over.
“Well, again, I’m not standing here at this point making any proclamations at this point because there’s lots of discussions that have to happen,” said Cheveldayoff. “I’ve been consistent in that comment here. There’s realities that we have to address. There’s contracts that we have to address. There’s various different things that come from coaches’ meetings, ownership meetings, and again. We’ll go through the process and we’ll make those proper decisions.”
Cheveldayoff spoke a lot about honest conversations with the players and those same players stepped to the podium one by one and exclaimed they had absolutely no interest in rebuilding.
Even if he’s not going to do so publicly, the time is eventually going to come for Cheveldayoff to let other general managers know that they should be preparing to make their best offers.
The odds are that several players are going to be moving on and it’s up to Cheveldayoff to do what he can to bring back the best return possible.
That’s how he can avoid a rebuild, by retrieving assets for both the present and the future.
It’s time for Cheveldayoff to be honest with himself.
It’s time to aim higher and raise the standard of what constitutes a successful season.
On Sunday afternoon, Cheveldayoff’s tone was similar to how Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe sounded last season when he talked about earning more respect in the handshake line, after they had lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning and failed to advance past the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
While what Keefe said may have been true at the time, earning more respect in the handshake line was something he should have kept internally instead.
The same goes for what Cheveldayoff said on Sunday — and quite frankly, for how he said it.
Celebrating an improved mood and tenor in the exit meetings when compared to last spring after the Jets fell flat on their face and failed to meet expectations?
What was the point of that?
That’s not going to sell hope to a fan base yearning for more.
Being intentionally vague as the leader of the Jets organization is not a flattering look either.
This whole scene could have been avoided with one simple sentence that would have gone a long way in the eyes and ears of the fan base.
“I’m disappointed we haven’t been able to accomplish more during my time as GM here, and I will spend the summer doing everything in my power to try and take this team to new heights.”
Instead, Cheveldayoff left the door open to reinvest in this core one final time and spoke of not using excuses, then went over a long list of items that sounded an awful lot like excuses.
That’s not the recipe required to break this cycle of the Jets organization spinning its wheels in neutral.