Let’s make something abundantly clear: This is down to Kevin Cheveldayoff.
Yes, the much maligned man who generally managed the Winnipeg Jets from the fetal position for the first 3 1/2 years of his stewardship is the main reason there shall be meaningful matches played post-April 11 at the Little Hockey House on the Prairie.
If not for Cheveldayoff’s sleight-of-hand prior to the National Hockey League trade deadline, you see, fans would not have flocked to the intersection of Portage and Main on Thursday night for an impromptu whoop-it-up in celebration of the Jets securing the Western Conference second wild-card position and a ticket to the Stanley Cup tournament. They would have been drowning their sorrows. Again.
Other explanations will, of course, be advanced in any analysis of the Jets transformation from perennial Sad Sack to playoff participant. You will find, for example, head coach Paul Maurice’s finger prints all over the product. Ondrej Pavelec, the oft-scorned, ridiculed and overpaid goaltender who spent much of the season serving as upstart Michael Hutchinson’s caddy, magically morphed into an all-world puck-stopper in the past two weeks and is earning his handsome stipend. Dustin Byfuglien emerged as a hybrid force. Evander Kane had the bad manners to wear a track suit to work one day in Vancouver.
All valid points.
But no. As I said, this one is down to Cheveldayoff, who, until two months ago, gave little indication that he actually had a pulse. The Jets GM has had more critics than Phil Kessel. He has been tsk-tsked for being reclusive. For being gun shy. For saying a whole lot of nothing whenever he actually pulled his head out of the sand. For doing diddley, other than stockpiling draft choices and preaching patience. He’s taken more of a beating than a rented mule.
Then along came the Kane Mutiny and we discovered exactly how daring and decisive Cheveldayoff can be.
We still don’t know all the gory details of L’Affaire Kane. Perhaps we never will. It’s one of those “what happens in the room, stays in the room” things. Suffice to say, Evander Kane screwed up at a team gathering in Vancouver, his mates were unamused, one or more of them thought it would be a swell idea to administer a dose of frontier justice, and the flamboyant, mercurial winger never wore Jets linen again.
In an era when the salary cap makes it difficult to trade bubble gum cards, never mind live bodies, Cheveldayoff managed to take his damaged goods (Kane) and shuffle him off to Buffalo, along with Zach Bogosian, in barter for Tyler Myers, Drew Stafford and an assortment of intriguing add-ons that include one of the Sabres’ first-round selections in this summer’s NHL entry draft.
To say Myers and Stafford have been useful is to say Jets team co-bankroll David Thomson has a few bucks in the bank. Both ex-Sabres have been impactful, gobbling up considerable minutes each night and delivering timely offence.
The deal with Buffalo was a master stroke. And Cheveldayoff didn’t stop there. He later added Jiri Tlusty. Then Lee Stempniak.
Subtract Stafford, Stempniak, Tlusty and Myers from the lineup and ask yourself if the Jets would be positioned to face off vs. either the St. Louis Blues or Disney Ducks in the opening skirmish of the NHL’s second season next week. Would we be talking about celebrations at Portage and Main and whiteouts and turning the Little Hockey House on the Prairie into the Den of Din on Donald?
The answer is an emphatic “No, no, no. A thousand times no.”
Yet here we are, discussing those very topics.
Here’s something else for you to chew on: Given a favorable set of circumstances, the Jets, although the eighth seed in the western portion of the tournament, could be in for a deep run in their first post-season crusade since the Atlanta caravan rolled into River City in 2011. If, for example, the locals were to meet the very beatable Ducks in the first round and survive, they would then hook up with the winner of the Vancouver Canucks-Calgary Flames series.
Can you say conference final, kids? I knew you could.
So, it’s hats and bonnets off to Kevin Cheveldayoff, master manipulator. Who knew?
Patti Dawn Swansson has been writing about Winnipeg sports for more than 40 years, longer than any living being. Do not, however, assume that to mean she harbors a wealth of sports knowledge or that she’s a jock journalist of award-winning loft. It simply means she is old and comfortable at a keyboard (although arthritic fingers sometimes make typing a bit of a chore) and she apparently doesn’t know when to quit. Or she can’t quit.
She is most proud of her Q Award, presented to her in 2012 for her scribblings about the LGBT community in Victoria, B.C., and her induction into the Manitoba Sportswriters & Sportscasters Association Media Roll of Honour.