He is on pace to obliterate his career-best offensive numbers, sits sixth-overall in NHL scoring and is doing the heavy lifting on a nightly basis for a team with a winning record currently holding down a playoff spot.

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Opinion

He is on pace to obliterate his career-best offensive numbers, sits sixth-overall in NHL scoring and is doing the heavy lifting on a nightly basis for a team with a winning record currently holding down a playoff spot.

Yet somehow, some way Winnipeg Jets centre Mark Scheifele is flying beneath the radar this season. In fact, I’d suggest many are guilty of taking his on-ice greatness for granted, now nearly a decade after he was the first-ever draft pick of the newly-relocated club.

Scheifele, 27, went into action Friday night in Vancouver with eight goals and 14 assists in 16 regular-season games.

He quickly added to his offensive totals with a first-period breakaway tally against the Canucks to extend his personal point streak to nine games.

Only Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews and Patrick Kane have more points, which is pretty good company to keep. That would project to a 41 goal, 72 assist, 113 point pace over a full 82-game campaign. To put that in perspective, Scheifele’s best season to date came in 2018-19, when he 38 goals, 46 assists and 84 points.

And he is doing this as just the fourth-highest paid forward, and sixth highest-paid player, on his own roster, signed to $6.125 million for another three years after this one, which is truly one of the NHL’s best team-friendly contracts.

So what gives? Where is the love?

No, he may not be as flashy as Nikolaj Ehlers or dazzle you with his hands like Kyle Connor. But you won’t find a more complete, all-around player than Scheifele, who I maintain is Winnipeg’s most important skater. And the way he’s playing so far this season — he has points in 14 of the first 16 games, including eight straight (five goals, seven assists) — is a huge part of Winnipeg’s 9-6-1 start.

Perusing my social media mentions lately, I’ve seen plenty of folks dumping on his play, pointing out mistakes and even suggesting he ought to be moved down the lineup. Any praise has been of the limited variety. That clearly hasn’t gone unnoticed by Jets captain Blake Wheeler, who jumped at my offer to weigh in on the matter Friday when speaking over Zoom prior to puck drop.

"I don’t think our market does an adequate job of promoting our stars sometimes and Mark has been toward the top of the league for a number of years," said Wheeler, who has been Scheifele’s right-hand man for years now and was back on that top line, along with left-winger Kyle Connor, against the Canucks.

Because the virtual format doesn’t allow for follow-ups — our microphone gets cut after one question — I would normally have tried to delve deeper with Wheeler on where he believes blame lies.

Is it with us in the media for not singing Scheifele’s praises enough? A fickle fan-base? A bit of both?

"The things he does day in and day out, it’s easy to do for a stretch or a year or two years but he’s been doing it for a long time now," Wheeler continued. "He’s an elite player. He’s been an elite player for a long time and recognition or not, we certainly appreciate what he does in our locker room. He doesn’t get overlooked by our group."

The stage and spotlight on Scheifele have been greater than ever this season, considering every game is being played in Canadian markets where coverage is widespread and the nightly match-ups are enticing. Take this week for example. After two straight games where Scheifele saw a heavy dose of one-on-one line with McDavid (and, at times, Draisaitl), he was going to face a similar battle Friday night against one, or both, of Elias Pettersson (with Brock Boeser) or Bo Horvat.

And the numbers suggest Scheifele is more than holding his own against stiff, unrelenting competition.

To my eye, Scheifele has made significant strides in his own end of the ice and is doing plenty of little things that eventually add up. He’s battling harder than ever and keeping pucks alive in the offensive zone on a regular basis (a goal last week against Ottawa was a perfect example, he knocked a Senators clearing attempt down at the blue-line and eventually got rewarded).

"I think one of the things Mark’s tried to do is battle harder defensively. And I think when he does that, everything else kind of comes together for him. The pace, the hands, the plays he can make," coach Paul Maurice said earlier this week.

"I think it may even be a driver for him. He’s run with different wingers, so it’s a bit of a new experience. Sometimes when you break the routine of the same guys you kind of re-discover your own game a little bit. I think he’s kind of got to the next level with that."

Perhaps most impressive is 16 of Scheifele’s 22 points have come during five-on-five play, which has him trailing only Marner, Matthews and McDavid in that category. That includes a goal and assist in separate recent games where the Jets played with just 11 forwards and he double-shifted with the two spare wingers resulting in a payoff.

"He plays a consistent game every night. He doesn’t change his game. He hunts the puck, he’s after the puck and he wants the puck all the time," said veteran Paul Stastny, who is currently centering the second line.

And here’s where news gets even better for Scheifele. He’s about to have company at the top of his own lineup, once Pierre-Luc Dubois recovers from a nagging lower-body injury that has cost him four straight games. Dubois, acquired in the blockbuster deal with Columbus in exchange for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic, only skated in two contests after coming out of a two-week quarantine before he got hurt.

But once he’s fully back to health and up to speed, expect Dubois to bump Stastny from that No. 2 center role and lend a big helping hand when it comes to absorbing some of those tough matchups that Scheifele is largely handling himself right now. When that occurs, we might see an even more dangerous version of Winnipeg No. 1 centre, which is a pretty scary thought considering the current version of him is quite something.

Scheifele’s star is already shining brighter than ever right now. It’s time we all started taking notice.

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

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.

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