Scheifele vanishes: no effort spared in search
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LOS ANGELES — It was late in the third period of Saturday afternoon’s game in Los Angeles, with the Winnipeg Jets down by a couple goals and showing no signs a comeback was in the cards, when Mark Scheifele slowly skated toward the bench following another lengthy shift in which he barely touched the puck.
He slammed the gate behind him, hard enough that the sound carried up to the press box at Crypto.com Arena. It would be the first — and only — time Scheifele made any impact on the day.
As head coach Rick Bowness and his staff, team management and ownership, and frustrated fans far and wide search for clues about why the Jets season has gone into a prolonged tailspin, look no farther than the play of the team’s top centre for the smoking gun.
Scheifele, 30, is nowhere to be found.
Consider this: Just 13 days ago, Bowness sent a strong message to his troops by sitting Scheifele and his linemates at the time, Kyle Connor and Nino Niederreiter, for the majority of the second period in what would ultimately be a 5-3 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes. It wasn’t a move the veteran coach made lightly, but one he felt was necessary. Scheifele’s stat line that night was ugly: No goals. No assists. No shots (for just the third time in 68 games). Minus-four.
Bowness was adamant after the game he needed more from his big guns. Scheifele, meanwhile, refused to talk with the travelling media, breaking his silence a couple of days later to say he “just didn’t want to”, then expanding on that a few minutes later with “didn’t want to say something that you guys get some click bait from.”
A strange sequence of events from a guy who is a formal part of the leadership group, with the “A” stitched on his sweater. But actions were always going to speak louder than words. So, how has Scheifele responded in the six games since, with his team’s once rock-solid playoff chances starting to slip away?
No goals. One assist. Two more games without a shot on goal, including the most recent outing against the Kings. Minus-seven.
And appearing less engaged than ever.
I asked Bowness about Scheifele’s play outside the team’s locker room Saturday, and he looked as perturbed, and puzzled, as we’ve seen him at any point. Like a coach who played a card he knew might carry some significant risk (that would be the benching, only to have it backfire in a big way.
And that, folks, is a mighty big problem.
“Fight through it. Fight through it,” Bowness interjected when I asked if this was a case of opponents throwing a blanket over Scheifele, rather than the veteran simply not doing enough.
“Whatever they throw at you, fight through it,” he continued.
The thing is, Scheifele isn’t showing a lot of fight these days, now with no goals and two assists over his last eight games and a ghastly minus-13 in that span. And the malaise seems to be spreading, with several other top-six players struggling mightily as well including Connor, Blake Wheeler and, to a lesser degree, Nikolaj Ehlers.
Put it this way: When your bottom-six forwards are constantly your best — as has been the case with the likes of Adam Lowry, Mason Appleton, Vladislav Namestnikov, Morgan Barron and Kevin Stenlund — your chances of sustained success likely aren’t very good. But they are the ones constantly powering the engine.
On Saturday, Winnipeg was quickly down 1-0 on the scoreboard — Scheifele was beaten cleanly on a defensive-zone faceoff resulting in the opening goal 82 seconds into the game — and trailing 10-0 on the shot clock when the third and fourth lines played the role of smelling salts and tried to wake everyone else up.
Try as they might, it didn’t work.
The Jets were given six power-play chances, including a five-minute major when Blake Lizotte cross-checked Josh Morrissey in the face. Scheifele was on the ice for 5:52 of man-advantage time, the most of any skater, which makes it even more remarkable that he didn’t even manage a single shot on net.
For a guy with a team-leading 38 goals this year, how is that even possible?
Winnipeg’s once-potent power play is now just one for the last 27. It’s costing them valuable points in the standings. And Scheifele, quite literally, is front and centre in that. At this point, Bowness should just consider throwing out his third and fourth lines the next time an opponent takes a penalty, if only to try and send another message. They can’t possibly accomplish any less.
There will likely be some who believe it’s unfair to single out the first-ever Jets 2.0 draft pick based on the fact that Scheifele has scored more than any other Jets player, but that’s his job, one he was doing very well earlier in the year only to go eerily silent now as the pressure gets turned up with each passing game.
Why? That’s the multi-million dollar question, with no shortage of theories, but it’s a troubling development from a player who is on record as wanting to have more accountability around here, which Bowness has brought in spades. Scheifele said earlier in the year he wanted to be pushed hard to reach his full potential. Now? It sure doesn’t look like that anymore.
You get the sense Bowness is now learning some of the same painful lessons about this group that Paul Maurice and Dave Lowry previously did.
As much as we might love debating about who the fourth-line right-winger should be or who the sixth defenceman is on any given night, those decisions, ultimately, do not move the needle. In the NHL, you are carried by your brightest stars. And right now, the Jets are falling short, starting with Scheifele.
There’s a sense of deja vu around here, with much of the same core intact from recent seasons which also began with promise, then faded down the stretch. The 2018-19 and 2021-22 campaigns stand out. Scheifele’s play and overall engagement, particularly when it came to his defensive responsibilities, was a major talking point then, too.
It’s a big reason rumblings around the NHL are increasing that Winnipeg might undergo an extreme makeover as early as this coming summer, especially with Scheifele, Wheeler, Connor Hellebuyck and Pierre-Luc Dubois potential unrestricted free agents by 2024. Maybe that’s for the best.
There are just eight regular-season games left to reverse course, with both the Calgary Flames and Nashville Predators in hot pursuit for the final Western Conference wild-card spot. Even if the Jets manage to sneak in to the playoffs, they no longer look capable of doing any real damage.
Until and unless Scheifele snaps out of whatever this is and finds his old form, they aren’t going very far. Has that ship already sailed? We’re about to find out.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.