If the Winnipeg Jets are to reach hockey’s promised land in the near future, they’re going to need the Mark Scheifele of the not-so-distant past to make a reappearance.
Allow me to take you back in time, to the magical month of May 2018, when Scheifele was making life miserable for the NHL’s best regular-season club. With his team facing the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Nashville Predators, Scheifele raised his game to a level we’d never seen before. By the time the series was over, he’d scored seven second-round goals — all on the road to set a league record — as the Jets pulled off the upset and punched their ticket to the Western Conference Final.
Scheifele finished with 14 snipes that spring, announcing to the rest of the hockey world that he’d arrived. Sure, he’d already established himself as a good player. But this brought him into the conversation as among the best in the world at his position. The post-season, after all, is where legends are really made.
Now 28, Scheifele told us the other day he believes he’s just entering the prime of his career. He spoke of an excitement about the coming campaign, along with an added sense of urgency. And while the Jets are far from a one-trick pony, it says here that Scheifele’s importance to the club — especially when the stakes are highest — can’t be understated.
The evidence is overwhelming. In the summer of 2020, a first-period injury, courtesy of a questionable Matthew Tkachuk hit, knocked him out of the best-of-five qualifying round series against Calgary in the Edmonton bubble. The Jets were quickly disposed of in four games. Last spring, an ill-advised third-period charge on a vulnerable Jake Evans knocked him out of the best-of-seven second round series against Montreal. The Jets were promptly swept right out of the playoffs.
See a pattern here?
The 2021-22 version of the Jets have been drawing plenty of comparisons to the 2017-18 edition. They still have Connor Hellebuyck in net, and a deep and talented forward core led by Scheifele, along with the likes of Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers, Blake Wheeler, Paul Stastny, Andrew Copp and Adam Lowry. Other than Patrik Laine being replaced by Pierre-Luc Dubois, the main faces are the same. The blue-line, which was hit hard by a slew of departures, appears back to being a strength, rather than a weakness, after three straight years of tinkering by general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.
There are many, both within and outside the organization, who think Winnipeg has what it takes to compete for a Stanley Cup. I agree, with one big caveat: Scheifele, the first-ever draft pick of Jets 2.0 way back in 2011, needs to take a full-time step from really good to great.
To be clear, this has very little to do with how many times he can light the lamp. Goals are great, of course. But hockey is as much about preventing them as it is scoring them. And there have been many nights, including long stretches last season, where Scheifele’s play in his own end has left you wanting more. You’ll recall it coming to a head last season, on a nationally-televised broadcast against the Toronto Maple Leafs, when Scheifele was stapled to the bench for a stretch for his shortcomings in that particular game.
It was a tough love approach from coach Paul Maurice, one meant to send a powerful message to his No 1 centre and the rest of the squad. Maurice’s role deserves to be examined at times, especially when goes to the all-too-familiar well and puts Scheifele on a line with an aging Wheeler and defensively spotty Connor, hoping to re-capture the kind of production they combined for in that 2018 playoff run. You’ll note that trio has been back together in these early days of training camp, for whatever that’s worth.
Scheifele wont be centering the top line when the puck drops on the new season on Oct. 13 in Anaheim. He’ll be up in the press box with us scribes, no doubt stewing over the fact he has one game left to serve on the four-game ban he received for sending Evans off the ice on a stretcher with a concussion. But when he does make his debut three nights later in San Jose, the Jets will need his very best. For the 81 remaining regular-season games. And then, most importantly, for what they hope will be a two-month playoff run and 16 more victories.
Scheifele seems to recognize it as well, based on what he’s saying. There’s a sense of self-awareness, admitting both he and his team "took a few steps back" after that run to the final four. Scheifele, asked what he felt he needed to work on most this summer, identified his "all-around game." That’s the right answer, one he went on to explain includes being better in the defensive zone and face-off circle, which are both areas he’s struggled in at times.
One thing we know about Scheifele is that a guy who has described himself as a "hockey nerd" and wants to be compared to the elite skaters in the sport will put in the work. I saw it first-hand last week, before training camp even began, when Scheifele was out on the ice with his long-time personal skills coach, former NHL star Adam Oates, for some early-morning prep work. You get a sense there’s a fire burning within him over how his last two years have ended, with him forced to be a spectator lined up at centre for playoff handshakes.
There’s a little extra motivation out there as well this year, a juicy little carrot in the form of an Olympic spot just waiting to be claimed. Scheifele admitted it’s "in the back of my head every single day," a desire to represent Canada in Beijing and compete against the best in the world.
If Scheifele can back up his promising words with the kind of play we know he’s capable of, then look out. The sky really is the limit for both him, and the Jets.
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.