Mark Scheifele looks like a man who’s made the most of his extended summer vacation and had the weight of the world lifted off his shoulders.
The No. 1 Winnipeg Jets centre held court with the media on Thursday, his words and body language conveying a more positive message than his last public appearance around these parts.
There were some thoughtful answers, plenty of smiles and even a few laughs as Scheifele took some playful jabs at teammates. Contrast that with sullen Scheifele who barely opened his lips as he sat slouched at the podium in April, just days after a first-round playoff exit at the hands of the St. Louis Blues.
A new season. And, it appears, a fresh approach.
"Obviously you do some reflection. But at the end of the day, if you dwell on it too long you’re going to worry yourself sick. I got past it, I had a good summer, I knew all I could do is go work on my game and get better as a hockey player and be the best player I can be for this team. That’s what I did. That’s gotta be everyone’s focus," Scheifele said following an informal skate at Bell MTS Iceplex involving about 20 Jets regulars and hopefuls.
"There’s no dwelling on last year, it’s over. Just gotta have fun and go at it again this year."
The way last season ended wasn’t a whole lot of fun for Scheifele and his squad. The 26-year-old seemed to be taking it especially hard, and there’s no question his play declined down the stretch. I’m told head coach Paul Maurice, in their exit meeting just before Scheifele met the media on locker clean-out day, made it clear much more was expected of him.
Scheifele put up 68 points during his first 57 games (30 goals, 38 assists) and was an impressive plus-20 despite often being matched against the other teams’ best. The Jets were 36-18-3 in that time, sitting on top of the NHL’s Central Division.
But then it all went south, as Scheifele had just 16 points in his final 25 games (eight goals, eight assists), failing to record a point in 16 of those contests. He was also minus-12 as the Jets struggled to an 11-12-2 record, failing to second place and drawing the red-hot Blues in a first-round playoff matchup that ended in six games. Scheifele had two goals and three assists in the playoffs and took four minor penalties, showing uncharacteristic frustration.
Scheifele didn’t provide details, but said he changed his training routine this summer.
"There’s always adjustments, there’s always things that you’re going to have to change or add or subtract. Figured out some things. I got a great team around me. I got a lot of people I can trust and bounce ideas off of." — Mark Scheifele
"There’s always adjustments, there’s always things that you’re going to have to change or add or subtract. Figured out some things. I got a great team around me. I got a lot of people I can trust and bounce ideas off of. Added some things, took away some things. It was a good summer," he said.
That included time with skills coach Adam Oates, who also worked with fellow Jets Blake Wheeler, Andrew Copp and Josh Morrissey. He visited Copp in Michigan, took in the Calgary Stampede and mixed in some golf, as well
"A lot of highlights, a lot of skating, a lot of working out and a lot of fun, too," said Scheifele.
And now, back to business with a Jets team that looks a lot different than the one we last saw last spring. Gone are Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot and Brandon Tanev. And both Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine remain without contracts with just a week until training camp officially begins.
"It’s one of those first years where a lot of good friends are not here anymore, so that’s obviously tough. Especially Jacob, he’s a guy I spent a lot of time with and we were rookies together and kind of went through everything together, so that one definitely stung a bit," said Scheifele.
"But obviously very happy for him and Kelly (Trouba’s fiancée) as well. You have to understand that’s part of the business, too. Those guys will always be life-long friends, that will never change. Just different sweaters on their chest."
Scheifele and Wheeler have chemistry playing on the top line with Connor, but that could look a lot different if the skilled winger doesn’t have his name on a new deal in short order. Same goes for Laine, who also played on the top line for stretches last season.
"That’s the game. That’s the business. There’s a lot of teams who are dealing with that right now. Don’t really know much about it. I’m not a GM — maybe one day. That’s something you just got to let happen. There’s nothing we can do as players. All we can do is work on our game and whatever happens, happens," said Scheifele.
He has kept in touch with both players, although talk generally revolves around golf, not hockey. Scheifele was quick to point out he fared better as a sponsor’s exemption in the 2018 Players Cup tournament than Connor did in the field last month.
"Definitely gave him some ribbing about the Mackenzie Tour. I’ll always know I’m a better golfer than him now," Scheifele joked.
"They don’t want to hear from us like, ‘Hey, how’s the contract going?’ That’s the last thing they want to hear. All you can do is be a friend to them and give them advice if they ask it. At the end of the day, it’s their lives and that’s for them, the agent and the team to decide. All you can do is lend a helping hand when you can."
“To be honest, no one really cares what other people think. If you let that get to you, you’re in a worse place. All we can do is focus on what you can do and what you can do for the team and the room that you have. And try to win." — Mark Scheifele
Expectations surrounding the Jets have changed, at least externally. Winnipeg is no longer viewed by many pundits as a bona fide Stanley Cup contender, but rather a team that will be in a year-long fight to make the playoffs.
You get the sense the Jets are going to use that as a motivating factor, based on Scheifele’s rather blunt response when I asked him about the perception of his club.
"To be honest, no one really cares what other people think. If you let that get to you, you’re in a worse place. All we can do is focus on what you can do and what you can do for the team and the room that you have. And try to win. Every game you want to go out and win. Who really cares what the media says, what anyone says? It’s about our room, it’s about our team and that’s all that matters," said Scheifele.
"None of that matters, no speculation, nothing really matters until you get on the ice, and that’s the way we have to look at it. All we can control is working on our game and getting better and getting better as a team. That’s all you can control."
Scheifele noted how everyone was ready to bury the Blues at Christmas last season, when they were last in the NHL standings.
"I think every team this year is going to have that in their minds. You can’t count anyone out until it’s over. St. Louis proved that," he said.
Scheifele said he’s prepared for anything — including playing on a different line than Wheeler. All for one and one for all, it would appear.
"Whatever is best for the team, that’s what you do. You go back in the summer and you work on your game and you become a better hockey player, to be the best for your team. That’s what we all strive for, we all strive to win and that’s what it’s all about," he said.
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.