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It would be a different story if Scheifele were healthy

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The injury to rookie centre Mark Scheifele is ironically revealing in that it shows how thin the Jets are at this position, but at the same time, how close the organization is to being flush down the middle.

In the NHL it all starts at the top and if a team has a legitimate No. 1 centre it can go a long way. Without such a player, as Jets fans have witnessed for three years, the waiting becomes the hardest part.

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Never has this been more apparent than this season, due to the ascension of Scheifele. When he was healthy and carrying a big portion of the Jets' load, his team was on the playoff bubble. Since he tore up his knee, the Jets have lost four straight.

Without Scheifele the Jets will not be a playoff team this year. Next season, healthy and even further down the road of his progression, Scheifele could very well take his team where its fans so desperately want it to go.

Jets coach Paul Maurice won't get painted into a corner and he never says something unless he wants to. He was asked what the loss of Scheifele had done to his team and he didn't spit out a pat answer about an opportunity opening for someone else or how the club would have to pull together. He flat-out admitted the depth of the loss.

"First it was our mood. The day of the game after the injury you could feel the loss in the locker-room. From a purely tactical point of view, he's a player that was appreciated by the coach. He's really good in his own end, does all the little things right, the puck comes to him and he makes really smart decisions with it," said Maurice. "Statistically he was a big driver of our offence. Net goals against, red-zone shots and all the funny stuff we look at, his numbers were top one or two in every category. He didn't give much up defensively and he was a part of goals scored. Not all of our offence, but a good chunk of it, came when he was on the ice. We miss him."

So what does it say about the Jets that an injury to a first-year player has taken so much of their steam? Last night Maurice used Bryan Little at centre on his first line, Olli Jokinen on his second, Jim Slater on his third and Eric O'Dell on his fourth. In real NHL terms, all four were playing above their pay grade. This points to an argument stating the Jets as an organization are thin at centre. But Maurice sees it differently.

"It says we've got a really, really good young centre," said Maurice. "It took a couple of years to get this young and we're staying this way until we build through the draft. (Jacob) Trouba and Scheifele are the two biggest surprises in that locker-room to me. You have to be on the ice and in the building to get an appreciation for where they are and where they're going to be. You can't see it on TV. We've got a really good centre in Scheifele. He's not going to hit the offensive highs like a (Sidney) Crosby. But this guy is going to be one of the best two-way centres in the league very soon."

So put Scheifele back in the lineup as an established No. 1 centre next season, put Little on the second line and Slater on the fourth. This way GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has a more direct path of attracting a free-agent third-line centre with some experience this summer or converting Michael Frolik into a centre and chasing a winger, now that he has his top spot cemented.

Scheifele's rise and the continued development of farmhand centre Adam Lowry changes the entire outlook of the Jets up front. All of a sudden both quality and depth are within reach.

Maurice believes a No. 1 centre and a top defenceman can make all the difference for a team. An elite centre and a Norris Trophy candidate blue-liner can elevate an organization.

"Centres are far more important than wingers. Try and find a Stanley Cup champion that isn't really strong down the middle. Wingers, you just go get them. Take a bunch of centres and turn them into wingers," he said. "How many teams have won and their best players haven't been centres or a top D? Not many. Centreman are critical."

Waiting for Scheifele to get to Winnipeg caused angst. Waiting for him to figure out the NHL was worse.

But waiting for him to be healthy again will be the worst of all, because now it's known what he can do. Scheifele is Winnipeg's most important player, and as we've seen with this injury, he's all the difference.

Maybe even the difference between the playoffs and the golf course.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 13, 2014 D1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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