Jets column: Cheveldayoff's big gamble with Byfuglien
It might not seem like it, given the youth movement, but making the playoffs is a big deal for Cheveldayoff
The big rearguard may not have been 100 per cent, but he was out there in the Winnipeg Jets' 1-0 victory over the Minnesota Wild Friday night. For the Jets general manager, seeing Byfuglien as an active participant was probably just as huge as the win. Maybe bigger.
No one — not the coaching staff, not the fans, maybe not even the player himself — was more thankful than the GM that the upper body injury suffered in Thursday's overtime win against Nashville wasn't as bad as it looked.
Why? Well, that would have been a very bad deal for Cheveldayoff.
Sometime last summer, the GM decided that he was going to keep his defence corps intact and try to ride that roster strength into a second consecutive playoff appearance.
It might not seem like it, given the youth movement, but making the playoffs is a big deal for Cheveldayoff. It's Year 5 under his watch. Missing out on the post season in four of those five years would not be a good look — no matter how much process or how much patience he preaches.
Part of the decision to buy into a high-stakes poker game, it seems, involved hanging onto Byfuglien, a pending unrestricted free agent, for as long as he possibly can.
Choosing to keep a valuable UFA asset, one who should be able to command a pretty penny when teams come calling, is a bizarre course — especially when it doesn't sound like there's much interest from the Jets in re-signing him.
Several heavy-hitters from the national NHL reporter pool have pegged negotiations between the Jets and the player somewhere between lukewarm and essentially non-existent. In fact, recent media offerings suggest there haven't been any serious discussions for some time.
Right now, Byfuglien being in Winnipeg next year seems like a longshot.
So what is the end game here?
The playoffs, while in clear view now, still sit in the 'hardly a sure thing' category. Despite winning two in a row this week, Winnipeg (21.21-3) remains bunched with a handful of teams below the playoff line, trailing Colorado by two points for the final wildcard spot.
Lots of schedule left to play, yes, but one figures Winnipeg will have to a lot better than a .500 team the rest of the way to separate themselves from the pack.
If it's playoffs or bust for Cheveldayoff, then what happens if the club falls short of that goal? What exactly is the bust?
Let's go through a few scenarios.
If the club makes the playoffs and Byfuglien doesn't re-sign, then Cheveldayoff can go to his bosses and say the gamble was worth it. Home dates in the spring look pretty good on the balance sheet.
Or say the Jets stumble over the next 3-4 weeks and drift further away from contention. Maybe Cheveldayoff cuts his losses, generates some trade interest and drive up a market for Byfuglien before the trade deadline (Feb. 29). This way, the Jets grab something for a difference maker before it's too late and the GM walks away from the tables down a few hundred bucks but with money still in his wallet.
There are two worst-case scenarios. The first one: the team holds onto Byfuglien through the trade deadline, falls short of the playoff line and the player leaves for greener pastures this summer. The second one: Byfuglien getting seriously hurt, not being available for the Jets and negating any trade opportunity.
Winnipeg felt some of that concern Thursday.
Having the all-star defenceman walk away without the organization obtaining some form of asset (a high draft pick, a prospect, a player) is an incredible risky play by Cheveldayoff. Winnipeg is not a desirable market for free agents; ensuring the cupboards are fully stocked with prospects and draft picks is crucial for success in this market.
This is where the Byfuglien gambit gets interesting.
Cheveldayoff has two more years on his deal after this season. Missing the playoffs this time around AND losing Byfuglien for nothing would put an incredible amount of pressure on the GM. One figures he'll have to at least make the playoffs next season to feel comfortable about his future beyond the 2016-17 campaign.
Those are high stakes. Who figured Cheveldayoff a gambling man?
Doubling down on this team making the playoffs, especially when he has a 6-foot-5, 260-pound chip to play, was a bold bet by the GM.
We'll see how he does when it's time to flip his cards over next month.