Gather ‘round the virtual kitchen table, folks, and you might want to send the young ones to another room so their delicate ears don’t overhear the difficult subject matter. But this is, quite frankly, long overdue, and of utmost importance.
We need to talk about Mark Scheifele.
It’s safe to say the bloom is off the rose when it comes to the first-ever draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets 2.0. The 28-year-old has gone from the golden boy around here — a prized player Paul Maurice once predicted would have a statue built in his honour outside the downtown arena — to a perplexing shell of his former self.
There have been plenty of stretches lately where Scheifele looks disengaged and disinterested, especially when it comes to key aspects of the game such as puck management. His body language is troubling, and even his rare media appearances are head-scratchers, such as the one last week where the alternate captain suggested his team currently has no identity — a claim interim coach Dave Lowry seemed to bristle at and throw right back at the feet of the players.
A couple days after that scrum, Lowry stapled Scheifele to the bench for the final 3:27 of a 4-1 victory over St. Louis. His last shift of the game involved a ghastly giveaway in his own end — his team-worst third of the game according to official stats — which led to an immediate scoring chance for Blues forward Robert Thomas, who was stopped by Eric Comrie. Lowry, it appears, had seen enough.
And so have plenty of fans, who have the pitchforks out. Here’s but a small sampling of the vitriol that came my way on Tuesday night after the Jets lost for the seventh time in eight games. Scheifele was held off the scoresheet once again, and now has just one assist in his past four outings, one goal in his last nine.
"55 is a disaster, turns the puck over more than he does anything productive with it."
"Lowry needs to send a message and sit Scheifele out a game or two."
"He has been floating all year. Right now he is not part of this team."
"#55 wears an A then play like it, not like you’re going for a Sunday skate at The Forks."
"What in the hell is wrong with Scheifele? He’s a human turnover machine."
"When is Scheifele expected to rejoin the team?"
It’s not just angry folks firing shots from their keyboards. Check out what veteran Winnipeg forward Paul Stastny had to say to colleague Jeff Hamilton in Philadelphia, moments after the Jets fell 3-1 to the lowly Flyers.
"I think sometimes we’ve got different guys showing up some nights, some guys not," said Stastny, who also spoke of how not everyone is on the same page. That’s a pretty damning indictment of any team, especially one halfway through its season. And while Stastny is too savvy and too classy to throw anyone under the bus publicly, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who he might have been referring to.
"Tell me you’re talking about Mark Scheifele without telling me you’re talking about Mark Scheifele," one fan said to me. "Call out 55 without calling out 55," added another.
You get the picture. And it’s not pretty.
Scheifele just hasn’t looked the same since the start of the second round of the playoffs last May.
I’d love to tell you why it’s all gone south, but I’m as perplexed as you are. Fact is, Scheifele just hasn’t looked the same since the start of the second round of the playoffs last May, in which he made the foolish decision to blow up Montreal’s Jake Evans in the dying seconds of a Game 1 loss. The reckless charge not only sent Evans off the ice on a stretcher with a concussion, but led to a four-game suspension which basically sealed his team’s fate in what proved to be a speedy sweep at the hands of the very angry Habs.
All of this angst is compounded by the fact the club has lost more than its won this year, now just 18-17-7 in a campaign that began with so much hope and promise but is quickly circling the drain. The Jets limp into the all-star break in sixth place in their division, a whopping 12 points out of cracking the top four, with 40 games left. They’ve also fallen to 13th (out of 16 teams) in the Western Conference.
The only hope of a playoff spot would be the second wild-card seed, which they are seven points in arrears of pending Calgary’s game against Arizona on Wednesday night. There are currently four other teams — Dallas, San Jose, Edmonton and Vancouver — they’d also have to leap-frog before overtaking the Flames.
There’s also the not insignificant fact that Scheifele has lost his mantle as the clear-cut No. 1 centre around here. Pierre-Luc Dubois, five years his junior, has more goals (18 to 10), more points (33 to 29) and, perhaps most importantly, more "give a damn" to his game this year.
Dubois now looks like the franchise player you want to build around, a guy who will drag you into battle and do whatever it takes. The pending restricted free agent is in for a big payday this summer, one that will no doubt surpass Scheifele’s US $6.125 million, and you get the feeling it’s only a matter of time before he’s wearing a letter on his sweater as well and officially made part of the leadership group. With 20-year-old centre Cole Perfetti now getting his big-league feet wet and playing on the wing with Dubois and top-scorer Kyle Connor, the future seems bright up the middle.
Scheifele has two more years left until he’s an unrestricted free agent and it’s fair to wonder if we’re getting to a point where a change of scenery might be in everyone’s best interests. Perhaps a fresh start with another franchise would benefit the player, and there’s no question general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff — or whoever takes his spot if his job is in jeopardy — could get a handsome haul for a guy who is still very close to a point-per-game player signed to a cap-friendly deal.
Ideally, Scheifele will cure what’s been ailing him, re-discover his missing game and be a part of the solution, not the problem. There’s still time for that, but the runway is getting shorter with each passing day.
Expect the rumblings about his future to grow even louder if the uninspired play of both Scheifele and his team continue through the second half and this truly becomes a very costly lost season. At that point, the organization may have no choice but to shake up the core with the kind of move that once seemed unfathomable around here.
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.