July 31 2013 04:55PM
Coming into the summer, it was plain to see that it would be a defining one for the future of the franchise and for the legacy of General Manager Kevin Cheveldayoff. Ten picks at the draft for a prospect starved franchise, just 19 contracts signed to the 50 man limit for a chance to re-shape the team, and the first set of season ticket commitments expiring at the end of the 2013-2014 season was the backdrop to the 'Summer of Chevy.' With 23 men on the NHL roster and just over $2M left in cap space, it would appear that the Summer of Chevy is nearly complete.
Our friend Ryan Blight over at Arctice Ice recently wrote a column that is quickly shaping how we talk about this summer in Jets Nation. He contends that by locking up the same core of players put together by Rick Dudley in Atlanta's final year, Cheveldayoff has ensured the squad remains the "woeful Atlanta Thrashers."
The reality is slightly more worrisome for the Jets and their fans. With the evidence of three off-seasons and two years of Jets hockey, I think we can start to fret that Cheveldayoff is a 'low-reward' style manager.
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In his three off-seasons as GM, Chevy has very much set himself apart from Rick Dudley. Dudley, in his first and only season as GM, made dramatic changes to the lineup, including adding Byfuglien, Ladd, Wheeler, Stuart, and Sopel. We've seen enough of Chevy to generously qualify him as a conservative manager. Let's review briefly.
He is maligned for his use of the Waiver Wire, which he has used 8 times in 2 seasons to pluck Brett MacLean, Ben Maxwell, Antti Miettinen, Grant Clitsome, Anthony Peluso, James Wright, and Mike Santorelli from other (mostly terrible) teams. He signed Wellwood in year one, who then went on to a remarkable 47 point season, was re-signed for another year and then allowed to walk this off-season. During last summer, he signed Jokinen and Ponikarovsky, and then traded Oduya and Poni for draft picks early-ish in the year while letting Jokinen play out a miserable, pointless season of hockey. He declined to trade Ron Hainsey at this year's deadline in spite of his upcoming UFA status and the (now obvious) intention of the team to let him walk. Yet, he also declined to trade for any help for his playoff-bubble team who fell just short of the franchise's second ever playoff appearance as injuries took their toll during the stretch run. Worst, he has stood behind Head Scout Marcel Comeau, despite his atrocious draft record and key role in making the perpetually re-building Atlanta Thrashers really, really bad.
It's not the resume of a world-beater.
The true problem is that his moves aren't conservative as in low-risk, they're conservative as in low-reward. If we consider risk and reward in the matter of wins, waiver wire players are almost always high-risk (losses), low-reward (wins) when added to be prominent members of an NHL roster (the case for 4ish of the 8 above). If we consider risk and reward from the standpoint of cap management, this summer has been one of high-risk, low-reward gambles also, and the 'Big 3' RFA contracts are a perfect example.
High-Risk, Low-Reward sounds backward...
As Ryan Lambert wrote on Puck Daddy after the Wheeler contract, giving 6 years to a 27 year old is a form of risk (somewhat high risk in Lambert's opinion). The likelihood that Wheeler is as good at 33 is low, creating inefficiency in the team's budget. In this particular case, I think Wheeler's spotless injury record through 5 years of NHL play after turning pro at an unusually old 22 gives him a better shot than most at being productive post-30, but there is no denying that it would be almost impossible for Wheeler to out-perform his $33.6M contract. We can simply speculate as to whether he will under-perform during its duration.
I came to the same conclusion writing about the Bogosian contract. It is an outrageously risky deal at 7 years in length for a 23 year old who can boast just 98 games of Top-4 quality hockey (and 200 games somewhere below that quality) and a long injury history. Cheveldayoff avoided a high-reward risk back in September 2011 when he signed a struggling Bogosian to a short term deal, and now he's made a low-reward risk in signing him to a massive contract we can only hope he performs up to.
Little? He probably has the best chance of not being an anchor at the end of his shorter 5 year contract, but he'll be hard pressed to out-perform his $4.7M a season either.
The same was true of his last round of huge contracts. Enstrom, Ladd, Kane, and Pavelec all got long-term, big money deals. Ladd was legitimately better than his $4.4M cap hit this past year but fans wait with baited breathe for the redux, while Kane is still growing into his $5.25M paycheque, Enstrom struggled enough this year to cast some doubt on the new deal that starts in October, and Pavelec is plain awful. But you know what's easier than telling your boss you need millions of dollars to buy out your mistake? Taking the very high-risk, very low-reward chance that Pavelec will improve and grow to earn his millions.
We can say that all of these deals are fair - and they are. The players got what the market would bear, and no one can doubt that all apart from Pav, these players are valuable additions to any NHL team. At the same time, they represent an approach by Cheveldayoff that appears constant and simply doesn't work to build a winner. He's taking risks, but the risks have little or no reward attached to them. The outcomes are either bad or not bad - the players either underperform their contracts, or perform up to their contracts.
In the moment of signing, there is no hope (outside the kind of hope we all have when checking our lotto numbers) for these players to out-perform over the life of the contract. Worse, we can't even say he's making a 'win-now' trade off. Long term deals are used precisely to lower the cap value so that (for at least part of the deal) the team is getting more than what they paid for while the player gets job security when the opposite is true. In Chevy's case, the players are simply being given term to reflect the team's impression of the player in that moment.
What about Setoguchi and Frolik?
I'm not sure there is a lower-reward top 6 winger in the league than Setoguchi. The risk is that he's not good enough to score without Thorton and Heatley (when he was good) quality teammates. The reward is that he can score 40 points again. As for Frolik, it was a shrewd move that cost very little and has little risk. Well done, Cheveldayoff. He'll look great with Burmistrov... oh, yeah.
Why is he GM?
I can't believe the narrative that he's just worse at his job than I would be, or even than Ryan Blight would be (sorry, Ryan - still friendsies??). His work with the Chicago Wolves shows he knows a good hockey player from a bad one, and can assemble a team under a budget. Granted, I'm super awesome at Be a GM mode, but something tells me his job is harder than EA Sports makes it seem. (Seriously, you can just trade your 1st round pick 5 years in the future for the 1st overall pick like every season...)
What I can believe is that he's worse at his job than many of the other NHL General Managers, who are all trying to get better every year. Worse, I can believe that he doesn't have a planned window of opportunity. The team doesn't appear to be building toward a particular period of time in which its players are on value deals or there is cap room to shoe-horn in more talent for a playoff run.
So long as he's not wasting money, creating bad press, or polarizing the board room, I suspect he has fairly long term employment. We can look forward to another 8 waiver picks ups, watching Jokinen walk for nothing, and listening to the team talk about building from within while avoiding accountability in any form.
But at least he's not Rick Dudley!