Centres of attention

Strength up the middle one reason Jets are Central Division contenders

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EDMONTON – It's no secret all the best teams in the National Hockey League are built strong down the middle. Solid goaltending and sturdy defence are also important traits, but there's no hiding the need for depth at centre.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 19/11/2021 (443 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

EDMONTON – It’s no secret all the best teams in the National Hockey League are built strong down the middle. Solid goaltending and sturdy defence are also important traits, but there’s no hiding the need for depth at centre.

The Winnipeg Jets have arguably the best goaltender in the entire league, with Connor Hellebuyck likely to challenge for the Vezina trophy for years to come – hardware he already won following a stellar 2019-20 campaign. The addition of Brenden Dillon (Washington) and Nate Schmidt (Vancouver) in trades over the offseason have solidified a blue line that already featured Josh Morrissey, Neal Pionk and Dylan DeMelo.

But it’s the crew of centreman the Jets have and the level in which they’re playing that is starting to align with the club’s other greatest strengths. With the emergence of Pierre-Luc Dubois following an up-but-mostly-down 2021 season and Mark Scheifele starting to find his groove after a bout with COVID-19, it’s no wonder the Jets find themselves near the top of the Central Division and considered among the NHL’s Stanley Cup contenders.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Centermen Pierre-Luc Dubois, left, and Mark Scheifele help make the Jets well provisioned down the middle.

“I’m sure it makes it tough on the other coach. He doesn’t have to just worry about one player or one line or whatever,” said Scheifele following Thursday’s morning skate in Edmonton. “We have so many guys that can capitalize and so many guys that can do so much damage offensively and we have guys that are buying in. You see (Dubois) obviously playing against the big guys last game and he did a tremendous job and he’s just grown so much since last year.”

He added: “He’s still young. He’s still growing. He’s still becoming a better player and it’s been awesome to watch his growth so far this year. You’re excited to see what more he can do.”

Dubois has been the most welcomed surprise for the Jets this season. After a tough year plagued by a long quarantine following a trade from Columbus, injuries and inconsistent play, the 23-year-old has hit the ground running to start the 2021-22 season, with 15 points (9G, 6A) in 16 games playing on the top line.

Scheifele has been a point producer with the Jets for years, but has struggled to find the back of the net to start this season. That changed this week, with the 28-year-old snapping a seven-game drought with two goals in his last three games.

Winnipeg also has Adam Lowry, Andrew Copp and Paul Stastny at centre, though Stastny remains sidelined with a bruised bone in his foot. Riley Nash and Dominic Toninato round out the group currently on the roster. There’s also players like David Gustafsson and Cole Perfetti with the American Hockey League’s Manitoba Moose.

The play of Dubois has made life interesting for Jets head coach Paul Maurice. Dubois has shown instant chemistry with winger Kyle Connor this season, a connection that has had him leading the No. 1 line for weeks.

Earlier this week, Blake Wheeler was moved to the line with Dubois and Connor, who leads the Jets with 20 points, including 12 goals, in 15 games. Those two players used to be Scheifele’s wingers, but have since switched to Copp and Nikolaj Ehlers.

Maurice has shown an obvious preference to playing Scheifele with Connor and Wheeler, but Dubois appears to have that spot cemented, at least for the foreseeable future. Not even a lull in play, the Jets coach said, would result in a shuffling of the line — at least not one that would last very long.

“I guess how I’d view that pairing (of Dubois and Connor) is I’d have no problem breaking it up in any one game, but my mindset is it’s going back together the next day. It’s also not enough there that I’m going to let it run for 10 (games) if it’s not working,” Maurice said. “I will probably let it run quite a bit more before I would even switch it in-game yet, just to let them go through some of those struggles and see if they can work their way out of them.”

He added: “We know what Kyle, Mark, and Blake look like at their best. I have no doubt that if we put them together, we’d see that. But the bigger picture has to take place. I’m not going to derail two guys that really have it going. They’re feeling good about their game, and I don’t want to take that away from them. Andrew, Mark, and Nikolaj can be a very good line. I’ll give that line lots of time too.”

The Jets depth at centre has had an effect beyond creating headaches for their opponents. Defenceman Neal Pionk has seen the improvement first-hand and is living the benefits of playing with a strong group of centremen.

“If you look at it from a position standpoint, wingers are usually somewhat up and down the wall – they go across the ice a little bit — but centres go D-zone, offensive zone, they have that reign to roam around if you will. It definitely makes it more dangerous when a team has depth,” Pionk said.

“As a defenceman you can trust them to make the plays and be in the position, they’re supposed to be in. It’s a great feeling to have.”***Edmonton Oilers superstar Connor McDavid seemed to shoot back at one of his more vocal critics over the topic of not drawing as many penalties as the other elite players in the NHL.

The Free Press asked McDavid — given his level of play, the amount of ice time he logs and how little he appears to draw penalties — if he felt like he deserved more calls than he’s been getting.

“Guess I gotta shut up about this,” McDavid said, before attempting to expand on the answer before ultimately shrugging his shoulders and moving on.

The response seemed to be a direct response to what former NHL head coach John Tortorella, who is now an ESPN analyst, said on TV recently.

“Yeah and he complained about it a little bit, that he wasn’t getting the calls,” Tortorella said. “Quite honestly, just shut up. Don’t talk about it.”

The topic of McDavid, the reigning league MVP, not getting enough penalty calls has percolated for years. But it’s boiled to the surface recently as statistics show he might have a case 15 games into the 2021 NHL season.

According to naturalstattrick.com, McDavid’s five drawn penalties is 57th in the NHL. Heading into Thursday’s game, he was second in the league in scoring with 10 goals and 19 assists for 29 points, behind only teammate Leon Draisaitl, who had 17 goals and 16 assists for 33 points.

“I don’t necessarily agree with the narrative that those players get under called. But I will also say that’s not specific to Connor McDavid, because it was the same narrative with Sidney Crosby, right?” Maurice said. “Every player like that gets focused on the other team. And it’s not just because they’re great – they always have the damn puck, right? So, ‘they check him all the time.’ Yeah, he’s got the puck. That’s why he’s great. We feel we have some players, too, that you’d like a few more calls on but…Andrew Copp on the breakaway the other night? Anyone taking that?”

jeff.hamilton@freepress.mb.catwitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.

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