January 23, 2019

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Scheifele growing into role as Jets' top gun

MARK Scheifele didn’t set the world on fire with his scoring touch at the commencement of his NHL career.

The 25-year-old Kitchener, Ont., product accumulated just 29 goals in his first four years in the Winnipeg Jets organization — and then equalled that total in Year 5 of the project.

Indeed, he was no Patrik Laine, Elias Pettersson, Alex DeBrincat, Brock Boeser or Mathew Barzal — kids who made an immediate splash with their finishing flair.

Remember, Scheifele, the first-ever draft choice (seventh overall in 2011) of the Jets 2.0, made the opening-night roster out of training camp as an 18-year-old, but lasted seven games and lit the lamp once. So, back to junior he went.

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MARK Scheifele didn’t set the world on fire with his scoring touch at the commencement of his NHL career.

The 25-year-old Kitchener, Ont., product accumulated just 29 goals in his first four years in the Winnipeg Jets organization — and then equalled that total in Year 5 of the project.

Winnipeg Jets' Mark Scheifele (55) celebrates his game winning goal during overtime NHL action against the Tampa Bay Lightning, in Winnipeg on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Winnipeg Jets' Mark Scheifele (55) celebrates his game winning goal during overtime NHL action against the Tampa Bay Lightning, in Winnipeg on Sunday, Dec. 16, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Indeed, he was no Patrik Laine, Elias Pettersson, Alex DeBrincat, Brock Boeser or Mathew Barzal — kids who made an immediate splash with their finishing flair.

Remember, Scheifele, the first-ever draft choice (seventh overall in 2011) of the Jets 2.0, made the opening-night roster out of training camp as an 18-year-old, but lasted seven games and lit the lamp once. So, back to junior he went.

There were doubters he’d become an impactful pro, to be sure.

"He went back to junior, and I remember sitting on a (media) panel discussing whether Mark Scheifele was a bust or not (because he was) going back to junior, not as an overage but as a 19-year-old. He didn’t make the NHL, and there was concern there for that," Winnipeg head coach Paul Maurice said on Sunday.

The following season, he stayed in Barrie, Ont., and had a monster campaign in just 45 games with the OHL’s Colts (39G, 40A) and suited up for four games with Winnipeg, but failed to hit the scoresheet.

Finally earning full-time, permanent NHL work during the 2013-14 season, Scheifele potted 13 goals in 63 games playing third-line centre behind Andrew Ladd and Olli Jokinen on a mediocre Jets squad, guided by Maurice the second half of the year. He followed up with 15 goals while playing all 82 games a year later.

He scored 29 goals in 2015-16, upped his total to 32 a year later and then supplied 23 during an injury-shortened 60 games in 2017-18 as the surprising, powerhouse Jets finished second in the NHL (52-20-10) behind only the Nashville Predators.

Scheifele was a beast in the playoffs, scoring 14 goals in 17 games, including an NHL-record 11 on the road.

Now, the Jets top centre and one of the league’s premier two-way middle men has made believers of everyone with his knack for depositing pucks in the net at a rapid rate while still orchestrating plays for his teammates, and efficiently handling a heavy load of defensive responsibilities, including killing penalties.

Scheifele’s ascent to stardom has come at the appropriate rate, professed Maurice.

"It’s certainly more classic of how we expect players to come into the league, maybe a bit more of a throwback. We’re seeing these kids — and we include (Laine) as one of them — come out of amateur hockey and make a huge impact in the NHL. But Mark has been very consistent in his curve," said Maurice, a head coach for 21 NHL seasons. "I don’t think he’s had a breakout moment. He’s just built each year and has gotten better, stronger and faster."

Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steve Stamkos, a close friend and off-season training partner of the Jets alternate captain, said Scheifele deserves all the credit for his place among the NHL’s preeminent performers.

"You always go back to the correlation between work ethic and success you have on the ice. He’s the epitome of someone who does everything he can to give himself an advantage out there, whether it’s eating, training, sleeping, watching film (and) constantly working on his game," Stamkos said following the Lightning’s morning skate on Sunday.

"He’s the self-proclaimed hockey nerd, right? There’s no surprise, at least for me, and I don’t think for many. You see on a daily basis why he’s so successful. You put him with some elite players in Wheels (Blake Wheeler) and Laine and (Dustin) Byfuglien on the power play, and it’s fun to watch. He’s an elite player in this league."

The 6-3, 207-pound right-handed shooter has only bolstered his position as a bona fide sniper almost three full months into the 2018-19 season.

After another heroic effort Sunday night, Scheifele now has 21 goals, tied for fourth-most in the NHL prior to Sunday’s contest with NHL front-running Tampa Bay. He netted six in October, seven in November and has been simply electrifying this month, with eight tallies in nine contests, including three in overtime, and a shootout winner.

Slipping into creases within the offensive zone, he can create just enough separation from defenders to accept a pass — usually from his keen-eyed captain — and unload a shot that goalies are having a difficult time handling.

"Take the opportunities you’re given. You’ve got one of the best passers in the league (Wheeler) who’s more likely to give you the puck and doesn’t necessarily want it back. He’ll give it to you in such a good spot you can’t possibly give it back to him, you want to shoot that puck," Maurice said. "He’s had more opportunities to shoot the puck, and those two have now found holes off each other, they read off each other and Mark at centre has a tendency to get the puck more in the middle."

Scheifele wasn’t an immediate impact player, and required time for his skills to evolve and his overall game to mature, but he’s grown in all facets and is now surrounded by world-class talent. His development epitomizes the steady progression of the team as a whole.

Scheifele said he’s been satisfied with his own game, to a point.

"I like where I’m at right now. I still watch every game over and see areas where I missed some chances or I wish my reads were a little better, so there’s always room for improvement. The focus for me is to use every practice day you get to hone those skills," he said.

"It’s a tough league. It’s a really hard league to score in. There’s a lot of guys who were scorers in junior or in college that are playing more of a checking role or aren’t on the power play like they were in junior. That’s just the way the NHL is. You have to battle and get better each and every day. And that’s what I’ve tried to do since Day 1... continued growth until the end of my career."

jason.bell@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Assistant sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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