TORONTO — They used to be joined at the hip, a seemingly inseparable pair for the Winnipeg Jets who helped push each other to newfound heights. But now that the dynamic duo has been broken up, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler still share a common bond.
These days, they're joined at the stick.
Take a close look at Wheeler and you may notice something a little different. He's using Scheifele's Warrior Alpha DX, right down to the monogrammed name on the shaft. And not in the "I just broke mine can I borrow yours for a second" kind of way. But in the "Hey, I think I like this better than mine so I'm going to keep it" kind of way.
"He's my favourite player," Wheeler told the Free Press with a smirk when asked about the unusual equipment change. After all, he's got a perfectly fine rack of sticks sitting outside the Jets dressing room for every game and practice. But the six-foot-five Wheeler is choosing to dip into 6-3 Scheifele's stash.
And you know what? It's working.
According to Wheeler, he quietly made the switch during a Nov. 23 game against Columbus at Bell MTS Place. At the time, he had gone nine games without lighting the lamp, still stuck on five goals through 23 games to start the new campaign.
Sure enough, Wheeler broke his mini-drought in that 4-3 win over the Blue Jackets. He has nine goals in the 20 games since and isn't about to go back to his old twig anytime soon.
"The honest answer is (Scheifele) put a ton of work in on that last summer to get it right," Wheeler said.
"He and I have used the same curve for the past couple years. His stick, the length, he lengthened it a little bit this year. And the flex is a little bit more what I’m used to. It’s pretty much exactly the specs of what I’d use, right off the rack. Dialed in, so I’ve just been using his."
With 14 goals now through 43 games, matching or even surpassing his career-high of 28, set in the 2013-14 season, isn't out of the question. And Scheifele can at least take some of the credit, even if he's no longer setting up his longtime linemate during five-on-five play.
For his part, Scheifele is always looking for something better.
“The honest answer is (Scheifele) put a ton of work in on that last summer to get it right." – Blake Wheeler on switching to Mark Scheifele's stick
"A lot of my buddies, you grab a guy’s stick and you say, 'Hey, why do you like it? What do you like about it?' and you try something new. I’m one of those guys, I’ve changed my curve, my stick, everything, probably every summer for the last four years," he said.
"So changing it up isn’t a bad thing. You’re always trying to look for more, you're always trying to look to improve your game.
"(Wheeler) has worked at it. Sometimes it’s just a little tweak, different construction, different lie, stuff like that. That’s just the fun part about hockey, you get to mix stuff up and try new stuff. I wouldn’t be surprised in the next four years if I’m using one of his sticks by that time. You never know what could happen."
Wheeler, of course, moved off the right wing on Scheifele's line to centre his own trio after veteran Bryan Little suffered a serious ear and head injury Nov. 5. Scheifele has been skating regularly with Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor, while Wheeler is between Nikolaj Ehlers and Jack Roslovic.
Wheeler, 33, has 30 points (nine goals, 21 assists) in 27 games at centre, continuing a trend from the 2017-18 season in which he had 16 points in 16 games while playing up the middle after Scheifele got hurt.
Scheifele, 26, hasn't missed a beat either, with 33 points (15 goals, 18 assists) in those same 27 games he's been apart from Wheeler, save for when they reunite on the first power-play unit. He was named the NHL's second star of the week Monday.
Most important, the Jets have gone 15-9-3 in that span. It just seems like the right fit, which is why coach Paul Maurice is considering leaving Wheeler in the position even when Little gets back into the lineup.
"... Changing it up isn’t a bad thing. You’re always trying to look for more, you're always trying to look to improve your game." – Mark Scheifele
"I think going to centre, you get the puck a little bit more in a shooting position. Both Nikolaj Ehlers and Jack Roslovic kind of come in and out of the game in terms of whether they view themselves as shooters or not, because they’re trying to make plays," Maurice said.
"And Blake will do things at times just to lead that, he’ll start pounding pucks for his linemates to understand that’s the way the game’s going to be played tonight. So he’s thinking like a shooter.
"It is interesting to watch, because all three are so very, very fast. And Blake plays a bit of a bull's game, and these two guys are... they're all affecting each other. Blake's always been a great passer. He's trying to figure out where these young guys are gonna be at any time. We're still learning what they can be."
Indeed, Wheeler's pass-first mentality seems to be buying him some extra time and space, which he's taken advantage of more often this season. And now he has a stick he truly feels comfortable with, thanks to a big assist from his old buddy Scheifele.
As the old saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it — which is why Wheeler isn't planning to change things up any time soon.
"You hate to order some (sticks) with your name on it and then they’re not exactly how you want them, so we’re just going with it," 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.