Former Wolves GM Cheveldayoff has built Winnipeg into top NHL team
Kevin Cheveldayoff has always been around winners.
From his first assistant coaching gig in the now-defunct IHL to running the Chicago Wolves for 12 seasons as general manager to his short stint as assistant GM with the Blackhawks, the 48-year-old Canadian has enjoyed overwhelming success at every level.
There were two titles with the Denver/Utah Grizzlies, four with the Wolves and one when the Hawks claimed the 2010 Stanley Cup.
What Cheveldayoff has done since leaving the Hawks as GM of the Winnipeg Jets has been nothing short of extraordinary, slowly transforming a franchise that relocated from Atlanta into one of the league's most impressive squads.
Experience paying off
The New York Islanders selected Cheveldayoff with the 16th pick of the 1988 draft, but his NHL career was pretty much sunk when he blew his knee out in juniors. After three seasons in the AHL and one in the IHL, the 24-year-old defenseman was still hoping to play when the 1994-95 season rolled around.
But then four-time Stanley Cup-winning center Butch Goring reached out and offered Cheveldayoff a coaching/management position with the IHL's Denver Grizzlies.
"I picked up the phone and called my agent," Cheveldayoff said. "It was late in August and he was still looking for a job (for me). I said, 'Hey, coach Goring called and offered me a …'
"He goes, 'TAKE IT! Whatever it is, just take it.'"
Three years later, Wolves Chairman Don Levin made the 27-year-old Cheveldayoff his squad's GM. Chicago was in the IHL at the time and won the Turner Cup in 1998 and 2000, then captured the AHL's Calder Cup in 2002 and 2008.
"He's almost like a son to me," Levin told the Sun-Times in August 2009 after the Blackhawks hired Cheveldayoff to be their assistant GM. "I know this is the next step toward his goal of becoming an NHL general manager.
"We're sad, but we're prepared. It was something we expected to happen. I'm just surprised that it took this long."
Those years with the Wolves were invaluable for Cheveldayoff as he learned what ingredients go into successful franchises.
"In the IHL you put your whole team together," he said. "And in the AHL you learned a lot about the needs and must-haves of development and how it is to your parent (NHL) club."
Armed with all of that experience -- as well as "great people and great leadership" -- Cheveldayoff has built the Jets into what they are today. Last season, Winnipeg won 52 games, racked up a franchise-best 114 points and advanced to the Western Conference final, where they were eliminated by the Vegas Golden Knights. After a slow start to this campaign, the Jets have won eight of nine and find themselves battling with Nashville atop Central Division at 21-9-2.
How he's done it
An hour before Winnipeg defeated the Blackhawks for the third time in 16 days Friday, Cheveldayoff sits high above the United Center ice and ponders this question:
Do you feel for Stan Bowman and the Hawks right now? Even a little bit?
"It's a competitive industry. We all have our jobs to do," Cheveldayoff says, somewhat skirting the query. "I was fortunate to be a real small part of this team that won a championship. For that I'll be forever grateful because it's memories and experiences that last a lifetime.
"The thing you take from it is how hard it is to win and how worth it in the end it is. I didn't have to go through the painstaking years of building up the players in this franchise. … I was fortunate to be a part of the culmination of all those things. But it takes time."
And Cheveldayoff is proving that when you have patient ownership -- and you draft extremely well -- that, over time, you can build one heckuva powerhouse.
"It's a true draft, develop and maintain type of model," Cheveldayoff said.
Certainly, it has helped that Winnipeg was near the top of the first round from 2011-14 and owned the No. 2 pick in 2016, which Cheveldayoff used to select superstar winger Patrik Laine.
But you still have to hit on your picks, and that's no guarantee in the NHL.
So check out what Cheveldayoff has done at the draft table:
• He took perennial 20-goal scorer Mark Scheifele at No. 7 overall in 2011.
• He grabbed D-man Jacob Trouba at No. 9 and goalie Connor Hellebuyck (58-19-10 since the start of last season) in the fifth round in 2012.
• Fast-developing D-man Josh Morrissey was snagged at No. 13 overall in 2013.
• Denmark native Nikolaj Ehlers was taken No. 9 overall in 2014. He's averaged 27 goals per 82 games the last 2½ seasons.
• Kyle Connor (46G in 128 games) was taken at No. 17 in 2015.
• And, of course, the nearly unstoppable Laine (103G in 187 games) should be a cornerstone in Winnipeg for the next 15 years.
"They've shown tremendous patience in me," Cheveldayoff said of team ownership. "They've been very, very loyal and the fan base has been very, very patient and loyal."
Some veterans were patient as loyal as well. Among them are former Hawks defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, former Boston Bruins winger Blake Wheeler and 31-year-old center Bryan Little, who was a first-round pick of the Thrashers in 2006.
Any or all of them could have left for other teams when the Jets were missing the playoffs in five of Cheveldayoff's first six seasons at the helm.
But they stuck around because they believed things would eventually take a turn for the better.
"In talking to them, I think they felt we would be going in a path that they wanted to be a part of," Cheveldayoff said. "It's so difficult to win in this league.
"There's no guarantees that the grass is going to be greener on the other side. Sometimes it's nice when those players say, 'Look -- we put the work in to this point and we want to see it through.'"
The Jets don't figure to be going anywhere in the coming years, either, as Scheifele, Wheeler, Little and Hellebuyck are all signed through 2023-24, and Ehlers is signed through 2024-25. There is the matter of signing Laine, who will be a restricted free agent after the season, to a megadeal that could easily exceed $9 million per season.
But that's not what keeps Cheveldayoff up at night. His focus is primarily on this season -- and more accurately -- on the state of his franchise today.
"One puck drop at a time," he says, smiling. "The biggest thing on my mind is trying to win a Stanley Cup. That's everybody's goal.
"After experiencing it once and knowing how great it was, I would love nothing better than our franchise to experience that -- our city to experience that -- because it's an amazing feeling."
Scouting reportScouting report
Blackhawks vs. San Jose, 6 p.m. at United Center
TV: WGN • Radio: WGN 720-AM
The skinny: The Sharks (17-11-5) have won five of six and are battling with Calgary, Anaheim, Edmonton and Vegas in a tightly-packed Pacific Division. ... Joel Pavelski and Timo Meier are the leading goal-scorers with 20 and 18, respectively. Defenseman Erik Karlsson, who was traded to the Sharks by Ottawa in September, has 2 goals, 19 assists and a minus-5 rating. He averaged 18.5 goals for the Sens from 2013-17, but has scored just 11 times in his last 104 games. ... San Jose went through a six-week stretch earlier this season where the power play when 2-for-50. Over the last 10 games, however, the PP has cashed in on 7 of 23 chances. ... Hawks goalie Corey Crawford is 8-5-3 with a .930 save percentage and 2.17 goals-against average vs. San Jose.
Next: Nashville Predators, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at United Center
-- John Dietz