The next seven to eight days will likely be the busiest stretch ever for NHL general managers.
It starts with Wednesday’s expansion draft for the Seattle Kraken and continues with a second consecutive virtual edition of the NHL entry draft on Friday and Saturday. It then culminates with the kickoff to free agency season next Wednesday. No wonder it has been dubbed “NHL GM’s week.”
The addition of the expansion draft, coupled with a more truncated timeline for the entry draft and free agency because of the just-completed pandemic season are the contributing factors to what is going to be a whirlwind of activity for hockey bosses. And it will be a smorgasbord of highly significant events for the fans.
Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff sat down recently with the 680 CJOB broadcast of play-by-play announcer Paul Edmonds and analyst Jamie Thomas for a Jets TV Fly By Podcast to talk about the many items on his to do list. And the Jets GM said another of the trickle-down effects will be a shorter summer with the league trying to get back as close as possible to a normal start time.
“Even last time when we had the expansion draft with Vegas, we weren’t in a flat cap world,” said Cheveldayoff. “There was that anticipation that the cap was still going to go up, so you were still able to plan your business in that regard. In a flat cap environment where you have players that inevitably need to get raises because of the way the CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) works, and the nature of trying to be competitive, it makes planning very, very difficult.”
New contracts for pending restricted free agents Andrew Copp, Neal Pionk, and Logan Stanley is certainly part of that challenging process. And so will replacing Mason Appleton or Dylan DeMelo, who have been left unprotected for Wednesday’s expansion draft.
Some Jets fans expressed varying degrees of concern with the decision to not include DeMelo among the trio of protected defensemen. And Cheveldayoff gave the indication — at least to this point — that no side deal has been negotiated with Kraken counterpart Ron Francis to take a pass on the veteran blue liner.
“Last time we cut a deal with Vegas and we knew how things were going to unfold for us,” said Cheveldayoff in reference to the arrangement that saw the Golden Knights NOT take Toby Enstrom in exchange for Winnipeg’s 15th overall pick in the 2017 entry draft, which turned out to be Nick Suzuki.
“This time, as we sit here right now, there’s anticipation. We’ve done our own mock drafts. It’ll be interesting to see what direction they go with some of their picks because that really pushes things one way or the other. But a lot can happen between now and Wednesday.”
Cheveldayoff admitted that it was not fun making phone calls to the likes of DeMelo, Appleton, and a few other players ahead of Sunday morning when those protected lists became public. And certainly from a Winnipeg perspective, choosing Stanley over DeMelo resulted in a fair amount of discussion via social media.
“He’s been a player that we obviously drafted in the first round and you spend a lot of time on the development side of it,” was how Cheveldayoff began his explanation of that decision. “He took the necessary steps in the extended off season and really worked on the things he needed to do.
“As a big man out there, your conditioning levels need to be at a certain place to move around and to play at the speed and tempo that the National Hockey League is. He became a dominant force in junior as those things progressed and with defencemen in general it takes some time for them to develop and we’re certainly excited to see what levels he can get to.”
Stanley became the 9th of 11 all-time Winnipeg first-round draft picks to score an NHL goal on March 27 in Calgary. And when he scored the Jets’ only two goals in the series ending 3-2 OT loss at Montreal, the 6-7 and 228 pound rearguard joined Adam Lowry, Kyle Connor, and Jansen Harkins as the only Winnipeg players to score in the playoffs during their official NHL rookie seasons.
And because of the success Cheveldayoff and his scouting department have enjoyed at the draft table — especially with their first-round picks — will Winnipeg want to use their 17th overall pick Friday Night to make a deal to improve on an immediate basis?
With the uncertainty for the 2021 draft caused by COVID, it would be understandable if the Jets are tempted to stray from draft and develop to win now. “I know the work that has been put in, in the non-traditional fashion by the scouts has been enormous,” said Cheveldayoff. “Probably more watches or views of the players – but over video. So it will be interesting to see. But there’s no doubt, as the draft begins to unfold, it could be a wild thing when you’re looking at your list. The 17th player that’ll be selected, there could be a variety of names staring us right in the face.”
And Cheveldayoff says even if a situation develops where the decision is made to move the pick, there has to be a trading partner who covets that selection enough to part with the kind of an established player Winnipeg would be looking for.
Which brings us to free agency at 11 a.m. CT on Wednesday, July 28. Historically, Cheveldayoff has either struck out on targeted players, or refused to over pay while other colleagues were spending like drunken sailors. The names of Mathieu Perreault, Olli Jokinen, Steve Mason and Dmitry Kulikov are probably at the top of the list of Jet 2.0 free agent signings. But it’s very clear that going into this summer, Winnipeg needs to address strengthening their blue line — especially if DeMelo is taken by Seattle.
And with many contenders tight to the cap already, there just might be a deal to be struck.
“Like any year, teams are signing their own players to longer-term contracts when they’re coming out of entry level, or trying to keep their own team intact,” was Cheveldayoff’s take on how things look for the league going into next week.
“There’s some players where you have desires to maybe try to jump in. There’s some players that you know, even if you’d like, they’re going in a different direction from intel or circumstances that you’ve got from the past. If you can find something that fits, in both position and cap, then you’re excited and hopefully can make it happen.”
And with respect to some of his own free agents, Cheveldayoff gave a very strong hint those conversations shortly after all the expansion picks have been made.
“You really can’t get a lot of your business done, like you couldn’t sign another guy because then it becomes a protection issue. You kind of have to wait until these steps go through,” said Cheveldayoff in reference to the Seattle draft.
“Once that’s done, then really it’s gonna be like drinking from a fire hose.”