Winnipeg Jets\' Bryan Little warms up on day three of training camp in Winnipeg on January 15, 2013. These Winnipeg Jets haven\'t made the playoffs, but that didn\'t stop general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff from betting the franchise\'s future on this young core after signing Little, Blake Wheeler and Zach Bogosian to long-term contracts.THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
When Zach Bogosian spoke to Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff after signing a seven-year, $36-million contract, his first comments weren't about that but rather new deals for teammates Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little.
In what has turned out to be a busy off-season, the Jets have committed $93.1 million to those three restricted free agents, a major showing of faith in a young core that has yet to make the playoffs. That's clearly the next step for Bogosian, Wheeler, Little, Andrew Ladd, Dustin Byfuglien and the rest of that group.
"A lot of people forget there are still a lot of young guys that have big roles on the team. Everyone is growing up together," Bogosian said this week. "We've had a lot of good players on our team for a couple years now. So, it’s going to be a good challenge for us, and I think this group can do good things going forward."
Bogosian believes this group can bring the Stanley Cup to Winnipeg, the No. 1 goal the 23-year-old defenceman said he and his teammates talk about every year. But the Jets were four points out of a playoff spot in a shortened 2013 NHL season and eight out in their first year in Winnipeg in 2011-12.
It doesn't look like much will change roster-wise going into next season. The Jets traded for right-wingers Devin Setoguchi and Michael Frolik, signed defenceman Adam Pardy, watched restricted-free-agent centre Alexander Burmistrov leave for the Kontinental Hockey League and have not re-signed forwards Nik Antropov and Kyle Wellwood or defenceman Ron Hainsey.
Cheveldayoff didn't shake things up, instead building around and extending the current core.
"I think you first have to evaluate where your group is, you have to show faith in them," he said. "You have to try and show some consistency from an ownership group, from an organization that you have a plan in mind, that you're sticking to it, that you're not changing directions in mid-stream."
The Jets have continued to do that as they prepare for life in the Central Division of the NHL's Western Conference. Eleven players are signed for at least the next three years, including blue-chip prospects Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba, forward Evander Kane, goaltender Ondrej Pavelec and No. 1 defenceman Tobias Enstrom.
Management knows what to expect from Kane, Pavelec and Enstrom, but the key to playoff games taking place at MTS Centre could be improved contributions from Bogosian, the 25-year-old Little and 26-year-old Wheeler.
"If you look at the age of the players that we have signed here over the course of the summer, they're all within relatively the same age demographic," Cheveldayoff said. "Now we need to keep growing, we need to keep pushing. We need younger guys that maybe we have drafted, hopefully it is their time now to start coming into our organization and start pushing."
Those younger players are Scheifele, the centre the Jets took with the seventh pick in the 2011 draft, and Trouba, the defenceman they selected ninth in 2012. Both figure to be the plans next season.
"The real exciting thing for us is to see some of the younger guys, like Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba, can try and push and make some difficult decisions for us going forward with the way the roster continues to evolve," Cheveldayoff said.
The roster likely won't evolve much before camp starts. Cheveldayoff completed his summer to-do list, but he wasn't about to start bragging about his off-season of maintaining stability.
"We’re not sitting here, trying to say that, 'This is great, this is great.' This is the process that we planned out," he said. "The real evaluation process starts when you drop the puck. No awards, no trophies, no wins or losses happen in June, July, August and September. It’s really, truly when the puck drops and as you continue to play throughout the season. That’s the evaluation that really matters."