Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/1/2021 (287 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Off the top of your head, name the most important member of the Winnipeg Jets.
You said Connor Hellebuyck, didn't you? Tsk, tsk. Cue up the Price is Right losing horn. With all due respect to the reigning Vezina Trophy winner, there is one player, and one player only, who fits the bill.
And that would be the organization's first-ever draft pick, Mark Scheifele.
As we saw during Winnipeg's brief playoff appearance last summer, the Jets are pretty lost without their No. 1 centre in the lineup, which is why all eyes have been on him during the first two days of training camp, wanting to see just how well the leg injured by Calgary's Matthew Tkachuk in the opening minutes of their best-of-five qualifying round series is holding up.
The good news? Scheifele is showing no outward signs of lingering issues, going so far as to make a bold declaration on Tuesday that both the team and its fans are no doubt hoping is true.
"I feel great. I’ve been skating a lot, so it’s not like getting on the ice and skating with all the guys is anything new. I’ve been on the ice a lot since the injury and just took a little bit of time off, did a lot of treatment on it, a lot of rehab on it and I was better than ever a few weeks after. There’s no issues there," said Scheifele, who returned to the ice in early November, about two months after going down in a heap inside the Edmonton bubble.
For a 27-year-old coming off four consecutive seasons of averaging better than a point per game (292 games, 299 points), the idea of a new and improved Scheifele would certainly boost Winnipeg's chances of hanging with their northern neighbours in the all-Canadian division this season.
You get the sense Scheifele, a self-professed hockey nerd from Ontario, embraces the chance to see how he stacks up with some of the best centres in the game — including Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Elias Pettersson — on a national stage 56 times this season.
"The learning never stops. You’ve always got to push yourself, so this (off-season) I evaluated my game and the areas that I needed to work on and worked on them all. Whether that’s faceoffs, D-zone coverage, shooting, passing, all that stuff, it’s all something you need to work on throughout this long time off," he said.
When responding to a query about Scheifele, Jets head coach Paul Maurice's eyes widened and a smile washed over his face.
"So this is a good story, I think, the timing of this all-Canadian division. I don’t know that people would watch Mark Scheifele play as much as you’d see the games in Toronto or possibly the Connor McDavid games. And he wants in that mix, right? So I think you’re going to see him elevate his game," said Maurice.
As proof, he cited Tuesday's nearly 100-minute practice, which included a gruelling "bag skate" near the end. Leading the way was Scheifele.
"We started skating at about an hour and 25 (minutes), and he’s driving. He can sense that opportunity to be on the stage, to show off his game a little bit and to show off all the things he can do," said Maurice. "I’m excited for him. I think it’s an opportunity that he’s earned. I think he relishes it. He’s trained for it and I think he’s one of the guys that is very, very excited for this division. And he likes to go head-to-head with the best and show the hockey world where he sees himself."
Scheifele's top line will have a slightly different look to start the season. Yes, Blake Wheeler is in his familiar spot on the right side, and not Patrik Laine as many (including Laine himself) would like, but speedy Nikolaj Ehlers is now on the left wing, rather than Kyle Connor, who drops down to play with Laine and Paul Stastny on the second line.
Maurice said it's more about trying to find the right chemistry with his top six forward group, which is as deep as any team in the NHL, but hockey is a two-way street, and Scheifele admitted that he and his teammates need to be a lot better defensively than they were last season, when Hellebuyck was often left to fend for himself.
"It comes from the goal-line straight down to their goal-line. It’s not something that can just be fixed with a quick system change or whatever. It’s got to come from everyone, every guy’s got to buy in to what it takes for the Winnipeg Jets to win. It comes from Blake Wheeler all the way down to the guys that are sitting in the stands. We all have to be bought in. We all have to know what our role is, hold each other accountable for those aspects of the game," said Scheifele.
He's been keeping a close eye on the World Juniors tournament — even sending Jets draft pick Cole Perfetti a congratulatory text for reaching the medal round — and has been impressed with the way the talented squad of teens relentlessly pursue the puck.
"That’s what it comes down to. It comes down to the will to be sound defensively, being in the right spot in the neutral zone, winning faceoffs, winning 50-50 pucks and then going to the offensive zone. Good defence leads to good offence and being able to create some good possessions in the O-zone," said Scheifele.
In a nifty bit of scheduling, Scheifele won't have to wait long to see Tkachuk, as the Jets host the Flames for their season opener on Jan. 14 at Bell MTS Place, the first of nine meetings between the teams.
"We didn’t play our best (last August) so it will be fun to face off against a good opponent. Obviously, Matt’s one of the premier players in this league and it will be good to face off against him come Game 1 and I’m sure he’s looking forward to it, too," said Scheifele.
A chance at redemption, sure, but also an opportunity to announce to the hockey world in a big way that he's back — perhaps better than ever.
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.