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Centre of attention

Jets require significant upgrade down the middle

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Seldom are the days when Mark Scheifele doesn't find himself at the gym and carefully considering every morsel of food he stuffs into his belly.

He's this close, after all, to fulfilling his dream of making it to the NHL -- and this time sticking -- as a member in good standing with the Winnipeg Jets. And so every moment he is awake, every decision he makes is geared toward taking that next step from prospect to pro.

"At the beginning of this last year I thought I was ready but, obviously, it's a big jump to the NHL," Scheifele said in a phone chat with the Free Press late last week. "I think I'm ready now and after a good summer of working out I'll be ready for training camp. Totally ready. All I'm doing right now is working out, resting and eating good food. This biggest thing for me right now is to gain more strength.

"There's a fine line between the players that do and don't make it," added Scheifele. "It's that extra mile that you go, those extra reps, that help you take it to the next level. I never want to take a day off. I'm never going to give up. I'm that close and I don't want to miss out on this opportunity. That's my mentality right now."

Scheifele's development is key for a Jets franchise looking at some serious question marks on its organizational depth chart, particularly down the middle. And so, as we launch our second annual Jets At The Draft five-part series, we begin with a look at the centre position...

Just as a point of reference, glance at the rosters of the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks -- the two Stanley Cup finalists. A few things jump out, including solid goaltending, depth charts overflowing with talent and, for the purposes of this part of our discussion, elite star power down the middle.

Worth noting is of the nine centres listed on the Bruins and Hawks rosters -- including Greg Campbell of Boston, who is injured -- five were drafted by those clubs, the other four acquired via trade.

The draft-pick centres include Jonathan Toews, Dave Bolland and Andrew Shaw of the Hawks and David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron of the Bruins while Michal Handzus, Chris Kelly, Rich Peverley and Campbell came via trade.

The point here? The most effective way to build up the centre position for any franchise -- and especially the Jets, who are woefully thin at that spot -- is through the draft. Enter Scheifele and Adam Lowry, the converted Swift Current Broncos winger who will likely spend next season with the St. John's IceCaps. Couple those two with Eric O'Dell, who had a marvellous second half in Newfoundland to finish as the IceCaps' top scorer, and the Jets at least have some centre-ice talent blossoming.

But it's with the big club that the question marks remain. Of the centres on the Jets roster at the end of the 2013 season, two -- Nik Antropov and Aaron Gagnon -- are unrestricted free agents; Bryan Little, the No. 1 pivot, and Alex Burmistrov are restricted free agents, Olli Jokinen is coming off a nightmarish season and Jim Slater, who turns 31 in December, missed a good chunk of the campaign with a busted hand.

All of which, in part, explains the two-years-plus hoopla surrounding Scheifele, the club's first pick in 2011, the fascination with Lowry, the Western Hockey League's player of the year and the very real possibility they could target a centre again at this week's draft.

 

CENTRE -- What's in the system:

The Jets

Bryan Little: Debate all you want about where he stacks up among the NHL's elite but on this team he is their de facto No. 1 centre. Underrated -- Andrew Ladd refers to him as the key cog to the team's top line -- Little isn't a prolific point producer, but he is durable (missing only 20 games in the last five seasons) and defensively reliable.

Little FYI: Age: 25. 2013 numbers: 48 GP, 7G, 25A

Contract: Restricted free agent. Salary in 2013: $3 million (cap hit: $2,383,333).

Olli Jokinen: Of all the adjectives used to describe Jokinen's first year as a Jet, none was flattering. His offensive contributions were minimal and his minus-19 was the team's worst. Jets management figures he can still be useful to them and will not be buying him out of the final year of his deal.

Jokinen FYI: Age: 34. 2013 numbers: 45 GP, 7G, 7A. Contract: One year remaining ($4.5 million cap hit) on current deal.

Alex Burmistrov: A bit of an enigma -- check that, a lot of an enigma -- but there's no doubting Burmistrov's offensive flair. Those in his corner wish he'd get longer looks with elite wingers; those who have seen enough point out for all of his skill he'll often make the simple play an adventure. His future in Winnipeg is iffy heading into the draft.

Burmistrov FYI: Age: 21. 2013 numbers: 44 GP, 4G, 6A. Contract: Restricted free agent. Salary in 2013: $900,000 (cap hit: $1.5 million).

Jim Slater: A busted hand cost him close to half the season and the Jets missed his skills in the faceoff circle. Respected in the room and comes to work every day.

Slater FYI: Age: 30. 2013 numbers: 26GP, 1G, 1A. Contract: Two years left at $1.6 million.

Nik Antropov: For all the cursing about Antropov's $4 million salary and not using his size consistently -- he's a towering 6-foot-6, after all -- he showed something when engaged during his two years in Winnipeg. That was always the key for the big Kazakh: when he was engaged. Uncertain future with the Jets.

Antropov FYI: Age: 33. 2013 numbers: 40GP, 6G, 12A. Contract: Unrestricted free agent.

Aaron Gagnon: Limited sample size as a Jet with just 10 games played with the big club, but head coach Claude Noel trusts his game and likes his versatility.

Gagnon FYI: Age: 27. 2013 numbers: 10GP, 3G, 0A.

Top prospect

Mark Scheifele: Started the season with the Jets again before being sent back to Barrie after four games... Did everything asked of him with the Colts, scoring 79 points (39G, 40A) in 45 regular-season games, leading the OHL in playoff scoring with 41 points (15G, 26A) in 21 contests as Barrie came within a whisker of a championship... Should push for a spot with the Jets this season.

The IceCaps

(centres under NHL contracts)

Patrice Cormier: Physical, solid in the face off, intelligent and versatile enough to play centre or wing. But has also struggled with injuries.

Eric O'Dell: Has a real knack around the net -- 55 points in 59 AHL games -- and a tenacity about his game as the IceCaps best player from December to the end of the season. Question: Is he quick enough and strong enough for the NHL?

Adam Lowry: The WHL's Player of the Year is cerebral, strong and big (6-5, 201). Can play the wing.

Max Macenauer: Still seems to see himself as a Top 6 forward. Got a look with the Jets during their camp and didn't respond well when demoted.

Ben Maxwell: A lot like Macenauer. Was a minus-17 in 74 GP with just 11 goals and 40 points.

In the system

(Draft picks or players under NHL deals)

Lukas Sutter, Red Deer Rebels: His offensive totals plummeted from 59 to 24 and there were criticisms of his fitness level. Will spend the summer training with Jacob Trouba in Toronto and then possibly playing next season for his uncle Brent, after being traded from Saskatoon.

Ryan Olsen, Kelowna Rockets: Sixth-round pick in 2012 had 56 points (32G, 24A) in 69 games with the Rockets last year.

Tanner Lane, University of Nebraska-Omaha: Was named co-winner of the Mavericks' Freshman of the Year award. Played all three forward positions last year.

The NHL's best

By comparison, a look at some the NHL's top centres (ranked by 2013 scoring):

1. Steven Stamkos, TB: 48 GP, 29G, 28A

2. Sidney Crosby, Pitt.; 36 GP, 15G, 41A

3. Eric Staal, Car.: 48 GP, 18G, 35A

4. Pavel Datsyuk, Det.: 47 GP, 15G, 34A

5. Mike Ribeiro, Wash.: 48 GP, 13G, 36A

Other notable centres: Evgeni Malkin, Pitt.; Jonathan Toews, Chi.; John Tavares, NYI, Nicklas Backstrom, Wash.; Henrik Sedin, Van.

 

This is the first in a series. Tomorrow: Part 2 -- left wing.

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @WFPEdTait

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 24, 2013 C6

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