WINNIPEG — The extra bounce in his step is readily apparent, as is the enthusiasm in his voice.
When a player of Mark Scheifele’s calibre is limited to three shifts in a span of roughly 10 months, it surprises no one when he’s the first player out onto the ice during Winnipeg Jets training camp.
Since arriving on the scene as the first player chosen in Jets 2.0 history back in 2011, Scheifele has grown from wide-eyed teenager to experienced top-line pivot. As he prepares for his eighth full NHL season, Scheifele is entering his prime.
He’s been an elite offensive player for quite some time, chipping in at a point-per-game rate in each of the past four seasons. Just last season, Scheifele was tied for 15th in NHL scoring with frequent linemate Kyle Connor after recording 73 points in 71 games.
He’s familiar with the burden of facing the top defence pairing and checking lines and has ample experience going head-to-head with the opponent’s top offensive weapons.
After getting knocked out of the Jets’ qualifying round series after an awkward hit that was delivered by Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk, Scheifele is eager to show that he’s ready to take the next step in his development.
While being under the spotlight is nothing new for Scheifele, the glare is expected to be even brighter during a 56-game schedule against what will be six familiar foes by the time May arrives.
“So this is a good story, I think. The timing of this all-Canadian division,” said Jets head coach Paul Maurice. “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.
“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. 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.”
It’s not like Scheifele had it easy before.
In the Central Division, Scheifele was getting a steady diet of Nathan MacKinnon, Ryan O’Reilly and Jonathan Toews, to name a few frequent foes.
Now he’s going to face Auston Matthews and John Tavares 10 times, McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on another nine occasions. For good measure, how about nine tilts against Elias Pettersson and the Vancouver Canucks? This responsibility is not for the faint of heart.
But Maurice is right, Scheifele won’t shy away from it. He’ll embrace the challenge instead. That’s just how he’s wired and the status quo is never enough.
“The learning never stops,” said Scheifele, leaning on an answer he’s provided numerous times before expanding on it. “You’ve always got to push yourself, so this summer 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. I had plenty of time to work at it so I’m ready to get back into game action and apply all the stuff I’ve done all summer.”
There has been plenty of chatter about what the return of veteran centre Paul Stastny can mean for sniper Patrik Laine, but it will also have a positive impact on Scheifele.
“It means a lot. He’s a guy that, we sit on the bench today, we speak the same language, we’re always kind of on the same wavelength,” said Scheifele. “So it’s awesome to have a friend like that, a guy you can bounce ideas off of, you can talk about hockey, you can talk about whatever.
“To have a guy like that in the room means a lot to me for sure, a guy that loves hockey, a guy that loves to work on his game, work on his body and do all that. (Stastny) is a specimen in that sense. A very, very intelligent hockey mind and to have a guy like that in the room and sitting close to you in the room, it helps a lot for sure.”
Scheifele is never lacking motivation, but the prospect of suiting up for Canada at the Olympics in 2022 should provide some additional fuel.
Although he was part of the exciting Team North America outfit that turned heads at the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, Scheifele hasn’t had the opportunity to represent his country on the grandest stage in a true best-on-best tournament since two appearances at the World Junior Hockey Championship.
The best way for Scheifele to ensure the prospect of being an Olympian is to deliver a determined, two-way game as both a play driver and a leader.
That’s also a critical piece of the formula for the Jets’ push to move back toward contender status after two early exits.
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