Mark Scheifele has one chance at gaining a permanent spot this season with the Winnipeg Jets and that's to earn a gig on the team's top line.
Despite coach Claude Noel's insistence that Scheifele could stick with the big club in a smaller role, the reality is GM Kevin Cheveldayoff will need more.
Scheifele could fit on the right wing of a line centred by Olli Jokinen with Evander Kane manning the left side. If he can't cut it there, Scheifele will most likely find himself back with the Barrie Colts of the OHL.
"I have to come into each game and show I can handle NHL players," said Scheifele, after Monday's training camp skate. "Each day I have to get stronger and show I can play all areas of the game. Going back to Barrie isn't even on my mind right now. My focus is on making this team."
Playing seven or eight minutes in a third- or fourth-line role, however, won't be effective use of Scheifele in this condensed season.
It's top six or bust for the first-rounder and right now all those spots are nailed down, but for right wing with the Jets' No. 1 group. Kyle Wellwood currently has that job but he's Winnipeg's most versatile forward and can play anywhere if Scheifele does make a push for permanent residence.
Cheveldayoff will have to be thoroughly convinced his top prospect is ready to contribute at a high level before he burns a year of his entry level contract on a 48-game schedule.
There are any number of factors involved in this decision and while Scheifele's play will be No. 1, the others have significant relevance. Scheifele will almost certainly start the season here and get a five-game look. But if he's not on fire and suggesting his pace won't fade, expect Cheveldayoff to return him to the Colts.
The Jets' record will also play a role. If the team is 4-1 at the five-game mark and Scheifele has contributed, his case to stay will get stronger.
The opposite, however, is also true. If the Jets struggle early and their already long-shot playoff chances get slimmer, it'll be hard to justify keeping Scheifele in Winnipeg.
Not last in the pecking order of this decision process is the matter of a culture the Jets are attempting to establish. Entitlement is not part of what the Jets are trying to instill in their players and all draft picks, but for the rarest of exceptions, should expect a stint in the AHL with the St. John's IceCaps.
Scheifele might very well make the team this year or next out of training camp. But he's going to have to show that he can contribute in the NHL as a pro and not a project.
Putting the 19-year-old Scheifele on a line with grinders Jim Slater and Chris Thorburn, as he was during Monday's practice, isn't efficient use of this particular prospect.
Mark Scheifele is not being groomed to be a banger. The intention is for him to some day be the team's No. 1 centre. He needs to play in key situations, take important draws and learn to handle the professional rigours at both ends of the ice against the game's best players.
The Colts are the top team in the OHL's Eastern Conference standings and head coach Dale Hawerchuk has loaded up his team for a playoff run. There are no certainties, but Scheifele's prospects at a long and deep playoff chase are much better in Barrie than in Winnipeg.
Playoff games are critical to a young player's development and can't be discounted. If Cheveldayoff keeps Scheifele for six games, he must stay in Winnipeg for the season and those junior playoff games will be lost. Scheifele would be eligible to play in playoff games in St. John's upon the end of the Jets season but the IceCaps are not a playoff team at this moment.
Scheifele has five games to turn Cheveldayoff's head to such a degree that he determines he can throw aside both contract and culture concerns.
Noel admitted on Monday he thinks in the now, while it's Cheveldayoff's job to always have the big picture in mind.
Don't expect Cheveldayoff to get caught up in the emotion of the moment.
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