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GM Kevin Cheveldayoff says Winnipeg Jets’ success is rooted in Prairie pride

Kevin Cheveldayoff’s pride in how well the Winnipeg Jets are playing comes from different perspectives — as the team’s general manager, as a hockey fan and as a Canadian who knows all about small markets.

Cheveldayoff spoke to the media ahead of Thursday night’s home game against the Chicago Blackhawks. The Jets (27-9-4) entered the contest trying to stay atop the NHL standings with a victory that would give them a franchise-record eight-game win streak.

“I’m a Prairie boy,” Cheveldayoff said. “I grew up north of Saskatoon in a little town called Blaine Lake with 550 people. I played my junior hockey in Brandon (Man.). I’ve spent the most time of my life here in Winnipeg.

“There’s a sense of pride. When you come from the Prairies, there’s always that feeling that you need to punch above your weight.”

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The Jets have certainly been doing that this season, but while the success feels good, Cheveldayoff is also tempering his emotions.

“We’ve accomplished nothing yet,” he said. “They’ve accomplished nothing yet. They know that. But you put yourself in a good situation if you play like that night after night.”

Captain Adam Lowry backed up that attitude.

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“It’s been a lot of fun to be doing as well as we are, but at the same time it’s only halfway through the season,” Lowry said. “We haven’t really accomplished a whole lot. We’ve been in similar situations before.”

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The Jets had sat atop the Western Conference in mid-January last season, but faltered and only grabbed the second wild-card spot in Game 81 after finishing 46-33-3. They lost the first round of the playoffs in five games to the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Vegas Golden Knights.

“Looking at last year, you can take some lessons where maybe we started to believe our own hype or things like that,” Lowry said. “But I think this year we’ve done a really good job of going back and looking at the mistakes we made in the game, whether we won or we lost, and trying to eliminate those for the next game.”

Lowry was named captain after the club put Blake Wheeler on waivers last June to buy out his contract. Wheeler then signed a one-year contract with the New York Rangers.

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Players and head coach Rick Bowness have talked a lot more this season about the team’s strong leadership group and a feeling of being part of a family that has had an impact.

Cheveldayoff has seen it.

“Everyone feels like this is their team, their contributions matter,” he said.

Two other moves also appear to be influencing the team’s success. Second-line centre Pierre-Luc Dubois was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in July for forwards Gabriel Vilardi, Alex Iafallo and Rasmus Kupari, who have fit in with the group.

Centre Mark Scheifele and veteran goalie Connor Hellebuyck then signed equal seven-year deals in October to remain with the club that drafted them.

“It’s huge to be able to retain two superstars in this league,” Lowry said. “Helle’s a Top 3 goalie in this league and Scheif is a No. 1 centre. They don’t grow on trees.

“To have that uncertainty (about their futures) gone has been huge. It kind of allows us to know what our team’s going to look like going forward.”

Hellebuyck won the Vezina Trophy in 2020 and was a finalist in 2018 and 2023. His play this season has been outstanding. He was 21-6-3 overall and on the longest unbeaten streak for a goaltender in franchise history (11-0-3) entering Thursday’s game.

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He and backup Laurent Brossoit are also getting more help in front of them as the players have bought into Bowness’s emphasis on defence from everybody.

Defenceman Josh Morrissey said a second season learning Bowness’s system has brought improvement, plus he pointed to depth.

“Our depth is really I think the strength of our team along with our system and commitment to playing a good team game,” Morrissey said. “To me, that’s what’s really exciting. I think that’s a way that you can sustain winning hockey games in this league and it’s only going to get harder from here.”

That depth has been leaned on since top winger Kyle Connor injured a knee Dec. 13. His recovery was pegged at six to eight weeks and he started skating with the team in a non-contact jersey on Thursday. Players also want their success to continue for their fans.

“I ran into one guy at the grocery store and he says he wakes up in a better mood when we win. So he’s been in a great mood the month of December,” Lowry said. “It’s one of those things, being fortunate to play in a market like this, everyone’s invested in how the team’s doing and where we’re sitting in the standings. Just to know that we have their support is awesome.”

&© 2024 The Canadian Press

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