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This article was published 30/4/2018 (835 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
NASHVILLE — Paul Maurice vividly remembers the conversation. It was 2012, and Mark Scheifele, the first draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets 2.0, had just been returned to his junior team in Barrie for a second straight season.
Scheifele had a total of 11 NHL games under his belt at that point, with one goal and no assists to show for it.
Maurice was serving as a panelist on TSN at the time, having been dismissed from his head-coaching job with Carolina the previous season.
"The question on the panel that night was, ‘Is Mark Scheifele a bust?’ Because he didn’t come into the league at 18 and score 30, he got forgotten about a little bit," Maurice told reporters Sunday before his team hit the ice for Game 2 against Nashville.
Maurice had no idea, of course, that he would be named coach of the Jets one year later. Or how much he’d come to lean on the very player he was discussing.
"Mark’s progression has been exceptionally consistent," Maurice said of his No. 1 centre, who finished play Sunday with a team-leading eight goals in seven playoff games after notching a pair in Game 2.
"He came to the team in his first two or three years, and we were truly rebuilding and young, so he wasn’t noticed. They were good numbers, but it wasn’t something they were talking about (for the) Hart Trophy. So he just wasn’t forefront in everybody’s mind. But he’s just continued on that same pace to get better, and he’s emerging now as a player that people have to notice."
Scheifele was quick to deflect any possible praise for his post-season play Sunday, saying he’s been helped by linemates Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor. Scheifele had just one assist in four playoff games during the 2015 sweep at the hands of Anaheim, but is certainly having a much bigger impact this time around.
"It’s just the way the game goes. When you get chances, sometimes you get lucky. The guys I’m playing with make it easy. (Wheeler and Connor) are pretty phenomenal players, so that makes it easy. You just want to continue to play a solid game. It’s all about playing both ends of the (rink), playing 200 feet of hockey. If you play good D, it creates good offence," Scheifele said.
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Steve Mason’s 2018 playoff contribution has been limited to 20-minutes of scoreless relief in Game 3 of the first-round series against Minnesota. With Vezina Trophy candidate Connor Hellebuyck leading the way, that may end up being the extent of it for the veteran netminder.
However, Maurice was quick to praise Mason for the role he’s playing off the ice in helping to mentor Hellebuyck.
Signed to a lucrative two-year free agent deal last summer (two years at US$4.1 million per season), it’s safe to say Mason’s tenure in Winnipeg is not what was expected.
He’s battled four different injuries this year and been rendered a non-factor thanks to Hellebuyck’s play, appearing in just 13 games.
"It’s been frustrating for him, for sure. A bit of a rocky start, like our team, in the first two games. And if you look at just his numbers after you take those first two out... he played exceptionally well for us. But the injuries are tough on players. He’s handled it great. He’s been a great pro. He’d like to be in the nets," Maurice said Sunday.
"It’s easier to deal with when you’re watching the game and you see Connor playing the way he is. There’s not a whole lot of heavy decisions for me over the course of the regular season as to who should start in goal. So, that made it easier for him."
One thing that’s impossible to measure is how much of an impact signing Mason had on Hellebuyck. Did the pressure of having to fight for the nets early in the season play a big role in Hellebuyck’s growth?
"There’s a really good relationship there. Steve works really well with the goalies around him. Connor’s that kind of personality, too. So, they’ve got a healthy relationship in the room," Maurice said.
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It appears the Jets left one thing behind when they hit the road to Nashville.
Injured forward Joel Armia remained behind as he recovers from an injury suffered in the series-clinching win over Minnesota.
Armia apparently got hurt on a strange play where Byfuglien’s slapper struck him in the arm and deflected into the Wild net for a goal.
He didn’t return to action and has missed the first two games against the Predators. Armia was skating with his teammates at practice last week in Winnipeg, wearing a non-contact jersey, but was nowhere to be seen here in Tennessee.
Like all injured players this time of year, Maurice wouldn’t give any update Sunday on his status.
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.
Updated on Monday, April 30, 2018 at 7:41 AM CDT: Adds photo
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