What's up with Mark Scheifele?
It's a question I've been asked numerous times lately, especially in the wake of an early playoff exit for the Winnipeg Jets. Scheifele, an alternate captain and No. 1 centre on a club that was once viewed as a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, had little to say as players met the media 10 days ago to dissect the end of their season at the hands of the St. Louis Blues.
Instead, he sat mostly silent as captain Blake Wheeler fielded the majority of questions aimed at both of them on the podium. Scheifele simply shook his head in the negative when asked if he would be playing for Canada at the World Hockey Championship later this month, offering up no explanation.
A curious decision, to say the least, when you consider other big names who jumped at the opportunity, including Mark Stone, John Tavares and Sean Couturier. You'd think a player of Scheifele's stature would welcome the chance to represent his country on an international stage.
Perhaps he was dealing with an injury he didn't wish to disclose, unlike other teammates that day. Or maybe it was just the bitter disappointment of having a season that began with so much promise end on such a sour note. I'm sure Scheifele, a fiercely competitive athlete who works as hard as anyone at his craft, was still reeling. And his demeanour certainly backed that up.
It wasn't a great look. Whatever the reason, the whole episode created the impression that something was amiss heading into what might be the most important off-season in the team's history. Coach Paul Maurice spoke of having to smooth some "ruffled feathers" going forward as he met the media later that day, adding to the narrative that all was not right with this team, both on the ice and off it.
And while Maurice didn't offer any specifics, it says here Scheifele was one of the players the bench boss was referring to. (It's worth noting Scheifele's time on the podium came immediately after sitting down for one-on-one chats with Maurice and then general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff).
The Jets faded badly down the stretch, and Scheifele's play was a big factor. Not only did his offensive numbers take a nose-dive, but his defensive commitment and work in his own end left much to be desired.
I'm told it became a bigger issue as the season went on and the losses and frustration began piling up. And you can bet the topic was re-visited in those exit meetings.
Consider this: Scheifele was an impressive plus-20 through his first 57 games, scoring 30 goals and adding 38 assists to put him among the league leaders in both scoring and plus-minus. That shows he was on the right side of the puck more often than not, even when matching up against the other teams' best. A 100-point campaign was very much in sight.
Most importantly, the Jets were 36-18-3 in those 57 games, sitting on top of the Central Division. Life was pretty good. Hopes were sky-high.
But then, something changed. Scheifele went an ugly minus-12 over his last 25 games, scoring just eight goals and adding eight assists over that span. He didn't record a point in 16 of those contests. And the Jets struggled to an 11-12-2 record, falling to second place and drawing the red-hot Blues in a first-round playoff matchup, which would end in six games. Scheifele had two goals and three assists in those six games while also taking four minor penalties.
Scheifele wasn't the only player to blame, of course. But given his role and importance on the team — not to mention how much he sees the ice — more was expected.
I know some will point to the elephant in the room here, which would be Scheifele's contract. The eight-year, $49-million extension signed in the summer of 2016 looks like a steal now, especially in the wake of big-money deals handed out to other comparable players in the three years since.
Scheifele inked that deal following his third pro season, coming off a career-high 29 goals and 61 points. Since then, he's had 226 points in 221 regular-season games, including a career-high 38 goals and 84 points this season.
There's no question he's vastly underpaid by today's NHL standards and would be knocking on the door of $10 million a year had he waited to put his name to paper.
At $6.125 million, Scheifele has another five years left on his deal before he's eligible to become an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2025, at the age of 32. He was the third-highest-paid Jets player this season, behind Dustin Byfuglien ($7.6 million) and Connor Hellebuyck ($6.166 million). But that's about to change.
Wheeler's five-year extension is about to kick in, paying him $8.25 million a year. Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor are restricted free agents likely to get deals this summer that pay them more per season than Scheifele.
Add it all up and the team's top centre and leading goal scorer is probably going to enter training camp this fall as the sixth-highest-paid player on his own team. And there's nothing Scheifele can do about it. Contracts can't be reopened or renegotiated. That's got to sting, at least a little. It's only human nature that it would.
I reached out this week to Scheifele's agent, Robert Hooper, hoping to get his take on a few of the issues. Specifically why Scheifele took a pass on the Worlds and whether there were any issues or concerns he wished to share about how this past season played out, what's needed going forward and his thoughts on Scheifele's contract.
Hooper didn't respond to email and voice messages.
For the record, I don't believe Scheifele's contract is playing a role in any frustration he might be feeling. Scheifele knew he was potentially risking some dollars down the road for long-term security when he signed, and he's mature and professional enough not to let any lingering feelings get in the way. Plus, he's still making one heck of a living, a star player on a small-market team in which both sides made a commitment to each other.
However, I do believe how these last few months played out left a bad taste in Scheifele's mouth, along with that of his coaches and management. So, now the question becomes, how does everyone ensure history doesn't repeat itself?
My money is on all of this serving to motivate Scheifele further, strengthening his resolve going forward and ultimately making him an even better, more dangerous all-around player. That would be ideal, of course. And he definitely has the talent and drive to do it.
As part of the leadership group, he also has a strong voice in the room, even if he doesn't tend to use it very often with us in the media. Scheifele is a cornerstone piece of this franchise who has the ability to improve the play of those around him, as he often has in the past.
If Scheifele can find another level by using this season as a painful teaching tool, both he and the organization will ultimately be better for it. And the kind of questions being asked these days will be a distant memory.
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.
Updated on Thursday, May 2, 2019 at 10:30 AM CDT: Typo fixed.