Mark Scheifele will return to being the player the Winnipeg Jets and Jets Nation used to hold in high esteem. That’s my prediction. He does, however, have some off-ice work to do first. Last year, the 29-year-old centre that was once the city’s favourite son had, by all accounts, a poor season. His play was inconsistent, he lacked defensive commitment, and he looked disengaged in a lot of games. He was questioned by teammates and media for his accountability, and he then threw fuel on the fire in his exit press conference.
During that May 1 press conference, he made some pretty interesting comments that had people’s heads spinning. He was obviously spewing frustration from a season that went south right from the start, as his responses were very egocentric. He kept reiterating that changes would have to be made and that he needed to reflect on what was best for him. What it did, however, was open the door for others to offer opinions. Some teammates, many in the media, and heaps of fans were quick to respond. In Manitoba, we would say, “He stirred up a hornet’s nest!”
“It is highly unusual for a player under contract for two more seasons to take a wait-and-see approach to his commitment to the team. It is striking that a player who played more minutes on a nightly basis than any other forward would frame Winnipeg’s issues as something that must be solved before he buys in.”– Murat Ates (from: “Where could the Winnipeg Jets trade Mark Scheifele? 5 potential destinations”, The Athletic, 10/06/2022)
Fans were calling for him to be traded, while the media predicted it would happen. He himself cryptically suggested it was time for him to think about his future. It was as if he were a free agent requesting a trade. Nonetheless, someone forgot to inform Winnipeg Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff of all this because nothing happened. What did happen was the Jets hired, with the exception of Wade Flaherty, an entirely new coaching staff but chose to retain the entirety of its core group for the upcoming season.
At the end of last season, everyone in the Jets organization was frustrated, and things were said by many, but Scheifele’s five minutes were the most memorable. I happen to believe you’re going to see a renewed player in 2022-23, the leader fans used to like. However, he has some changes to make, and here’s what I think you will see happen.
Scheifele Needs to Regain Trust
First and foremost, Schiefele needs to regain the trust of his teammates. If that doesn’t take place, the rest of what I have to say is a moot point. As ambiguous as Scheifele’s exit interview was, Paul Stastny’s was crystal clear. He used the phrases ‘accountable to’ and ‘respect for teammates” when describing how winning teams operate. It was obvious to most that his comments were targeted directly toward Scheifele.
Once again Paul Stastny speaks his mind about what was wrong with the Jets this season. While he never mentioned any names I can’t help but think he’s talking about Mark Scheifele pic.twitter.com/uTdcMFD8YX— Joe Pascucci (@Pascucci015) May 1, 2022
Scheifele’s lack of defensive effort was well documented last season. It was common to see him play an offensively good game with little thought to defense. He played with a casual attitude towards team defense with poor puck control, which got him benched a couple of times in January.
For him to return to the player he was in fans’ eyes, he will have to start here. Hockey is a 200-foot game, and the best players work hard at both ends of the rink. Playing for a new coach under a new system gives him a chance to hit the reset button and show his teammates that he is totally committed to winning again. He has recently said playing for a new coaching staff will be like a fresh start that he’s excited for. Showing you’re locked into the team system and accountable for your play would be his first step.
Scheifele Needs to Be a Leader
Unless you’re one of the few people that can actually call themselves a Winnipeg Jet, you can only speculate as to what goes on inside the locker room and behind the scenes. The public gets fragments of information and cryptic comments that require deciphering and assumptions. None of us are able, with 100 percent certainty, to comment about the team’s culture without a great deal of speculation. The good teams look after locker room problems in private, and the Jets happen to be a very private group. Scheifele recently went on record as saying the Jets have a fantastic locker room, and everyone got along.
Whether that is true or not is up to interpretation. From the comments he and players like Eric Comrie have made about how good the team atmosphere was as compared to what we heard at the end of the season from more than one Jet, the full truth most likely lies somewhere in between.
With a fresh start to the season under new tutelage, now would be a good time for Scheifele to take the bull by the horns and do his part to turn this team into a fully unified entity. He has the seniority to do it, and it would go a long way to building any trust that may have been lost. Teams that genuinely like each other with a united goal tend to perform better and more consistently over an 82-game season. This will be key to the Jets’ success.
Scheifele Needs to Accept Whatever Bowness Lays Out
The final key for Scheifele regaining credibility in the locker room and popularity with fans is to take whatever new head coach Rick Bowness implements and execute it on a nightly basis. He’s already commented on how well Bowness communicates and wants the player’s input. In a recent interview with Sara Orelsky, he looked genuinely excited and energized to get the season started.
Bowness and associate coach Scott Arniel will bring a new look to this club with accountability and discipline in tow. Scheifele has played almost all of his NHL career under Paul Maurice, who resigned in December, and a fresh set of eyes with a new perspective may be exactly what he needs. He needs to embrace that.
The Jets have one of the best one-two combinations at centre ice in the NHL between him and Pierre-Luc Dubois, and the new coaching staff is likely to have a different concept on how to best utilize the pair. If he is able to accept whatever game plan they roll out, it’ll go a long way to rebuilding his trust and leadership within the team.
This is not to say that he’s going to have to adapt to a brand-new role. He won’t. Scheifele is a point-per-game player; those are rare and a hot commodity in the NHL. His current contract of $6.125 million per year is a very team-friendly deal, and the Jets will give him every opportunity to turn things around. Even last year, when he was highly criticized for his play, he managed 70 points (29 goals, 41 assists) in 67 games.
His role on the Jets will remain very similar, but his ice-time may be altered. Last year, his average time on the ice (TOI) was 21:08, and he’s averaged over 21 minutes of TOI in the past six seasons, all under Maurice. The only forward whose TOI was higher last season was Kyle Connor, who earned an expanded role on the penalty kill. Dubois played just under 19 minutes per game, and on the surface, it looks minimal. But over an 82-game schedule, that translates to an extra 2 hours and 44 minutes of playing time. Who would you play more in that amount of time? A defensive liability or a defensive stalwart? Schiefele needs to earn that extra time this season.
Scheifele Will Turn Things Around
Bowness was hired to improve the team’s culture and defensive ineptitude. Scheifele will need to either accept his shortcomings and improve in the Jets’ end, being smarter and more careful with the puck while being defensively responsible. It’s that or face diminishing ice time, a strategy that neither Maurice nor Dave Lowry would implement. But he says he’s looking forward to the season ahead. He’s eager to work with Bowness and Arniel, likes the roster and thinks they have a chance to prove the naysayers wrong. (from ‘Excited to get back’: Jets’ Scheifele eager to prove team’s better than it showed last season,’ Winnipeg Sun, 16/08/2022)
I think Scheifele is going to turn things around this year. I think fans will be happy with the return of the player who, in 2017-18, was a Top 3 centre in the NHL. He sounds excited and eager to get going, but it’s going to take some work to earn people’s trust back, and in sport, as in life, actions speak much louder than words.