You could do worse with your praise for an NHL executive than to bestow it onto George McPhee.
Using spare bits to build, at minimum, a conference finalist is an extraordinary accomplishment, and one frankly beyond comparison in the realm of professional sports in North America.
Bravo, for real.
But the one thing that shouldn’t be forgotten is the chance aspect of all this. Winning 51 games in the regular season and at least two rounds in the Stanley Cup playoffs is certainly no fluke. And it is, regardless of what happens next, an introduction wonderful beyond measure for the Vegas Golden Knights.
But this was never the plan.
The same can’t be said for Kevin Cheveldayoff. Taking the remnants of the old Atlanta Thrashers franchise, Cheveldayoff has, over the span of seven seasons and with the sort of deliberateness and care rarely seen in the NHL, built the Winnipeg Jets into an elite team and a legitimate threat to win the Stanley Cup.
So let’s have him share in that McPhee shine.
Draft, draft, draft
A successful executive’s hallmark is almost always a quality draft record, so it should be no surprise that Cheveldayoff has been sterling with his late-June selections.
Beginning in 2011, when he somewhat contentiously awarded Mark Scheifele that colourless NHL-branded sweater to mark his first-ever selection (because the Jets hadn’t yet settled on a re-design), Cheveldayoff has been able to add a foundational piece in the first round every single year.
Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey, Nik Ehlers, Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine have followed Scheifele through the first-round pipeline in the span of six summers, helping solidify the core inherited from Atlanta.
There’s also been talent picked out the later rounds, with current bottom-six contributors Adam Lowry and Andrew Copp chosen in the middle of the draft, while Vezina Trophy nominee Connor Hellebuyck — the goaltender most responsible for the team’s ascent this season — was taken 130th overall in 2012, Cheveldayoff’s second year at the helm.
With one postseason appearance (which came and went without a single victory) in Atlanta’s 11 seasons, the roster that Cheveldayoff inherited was deeply flawed, but did have talent built within.
Though it took several seasons for Cheveldayoff to sort through the mess, what remains now is the framework for coach Paul Maurice’s leadership core, to go along with the assets that were acquired for the players deemed unfit for the future of the franchise.
The team’s heartbeat, Blake Wheeler, and one of the NHL’s most unique players, Dustin Byfuglien, are the two pillars in which the franchise is built on, while the only other two remaining holdovers from the Atlanta days, Bryan Little and Toby Enstrom, remain productive in lesser roles.
Elsewhere, Cheveldayoff wisely cut bait on three other commitments he made in three other former Thrashers.
First, once Evander Kane finally wore out his welcome, he and the overpaid Zach Bogosian were dealt to the Buffalo Sabres for a package that included two more foundational pieces in Tyler Myers and Joel Armia (to go along with 2015 first-round draft pick Jack Roslovic). And in perhaps his most important decision of his entire tenure to date, Cheveldayoff almost inconsequentially bagged another first-round pick when he dealt Andrew Ladd’s diminishing skillset to the Chicago Blackhawks after the former captain wouldn’t commit to the tabled terms on a new deal before entering a contract season.
The only investment Cheveldayoff couldn’t salvage was the term on Ondrej Pavelec’s contract. The netminder was the primary reason the Jets circled the drain for a few seasons, stopping pucks at a .907 rate in his five-year deal out of entry level.
What’s somewhat ironic is that Cheveldayoff’s only real missteps in free agency came this past summer — before the most successful season in franchise history.
Normally hibernating in the offseason (another common trait among successful executives), Cheveldayoff instead signed free agents Steve Mason and Dmitry Kulikov — two players having no impact on their run in the Stanley Cup Playoffs — to multi-year deals each worth in excess of $4 million annually.
Thankfully, the depth built through the draft has erased these mistakes for the time being, and there aren’t any others on the books to compound the problem.
Cheveldayoff did secure two productive players in previous free-agent periods in the oft-injured but well-priced Mathieu Perreault, and a really solid buy from the college ranks in depth forward Brandon Tanev.
Though he did dodge a bullet when Ladd turned down the big-money extension, Cheveldayoff has earned the benefit of the doubt with a strong track record of in-house negotiation.
Hell, he deserves it from the Scheifele contract alone. Winnipeg’s No. 1 centre might be the lowest-paid superstar (not on entry level) in the entire NHL at $6.125 million — and Scheifele will earn that modest salary through until 2023-24.
Byfuglien is the only player currently earning more than Scheifele on a payroll that left over $5 million unused. There will be a financial squeeze, yet, but the Jets are set up nicely for the long term.
Learning when to strike
Twice Cheveldayoff has seen an opportunity to add via trade. Once in 2013-14, when their miscalculation resulted in a last-place finish and Claude Noel was replaced with Maurice (good decision, that). And this season, when they finished with the league’s second-best record behind only Nashville.
The manner in which it blew up in his face the last time Cheveldayoff tried to flex could very well be the reason that he operates much more circumspectly than most general managers. But since learning that lesson, it’s served him quite well.
His only major splash (from a pure buyer’s standpoint) since 2014 was the acquisition of Paul Stastny at this year’s trade deadline. With six goals and 14 points in 12 postseason games, it’s been one worth waiting on.
The other stuff
Every executive has to brace for unforeseen circumstances. For Cheveldayoff, having Trouba, 22 at the time, submit a trade request and the NHL’s expansion to Vegas were among them.
With Trouba, Cheveldayoff heard the first-round pick’s cries for an increased role elsewhere, weighed his options, stood firm, and wound up retaining several restricted free agent seasons with the right-shot defender on a bridge deal after he rescinded the request. Now he’s playing a key role in their Stanley Cup run.
Oh, and in the expansion draft, Cheveldayoff agreed to move down 11 slots in the first round of the draft along with giving up a 2019 third-round pick to have Vegas select Chris Thorburn, a player that wasn’t even under contract with Winnipeg at the time.
Cheveldayoff, we’re sure George McPhee will agree, managed that situation exceedingly better than most.