Jets’ Scheifele Has Offensive Success Diminished by Defensive Struggles

The Winnipeg Jets 2.0’s first-ever selection in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft was an unknown kid from the Barrie Colts who became the only top-line centre this version of the Jets has ever really known. This season, however, Mark Scheifele has been heavily criticized for his lack of two-way play and complete disregard for defence. The question now will be, what do the Jets do with him in the offseason, if anything? It’s a complex question with many moving parts.

Scheifele is an Offensive Weapon

Scheifele is getting paid $6.125 million per season, and as expensive as that may sound, it’s actually a fair price for what he does. He simply puts the puck in the net. He is scoring at more than a point-per-game pace and being the team’s top-line centre, he is doing it at even strength and on the Jets’ first power-play unit with plenty of ice time to produce.

Mark Scheifele Winnipeg Jets
Mark Scheifele has been a consistent scorer for the Winnipeg Jets. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

This season Scheifele has 65 points in 64 games, including seven goals and 19 points with the man advantage. He is scoring at 1.02 points per game, which is exactly the same output Jets fans have become accustomed to over the years. In the past six seasons dating back to 2016-17, he has amassed 427 points in 412 games, which is a 1.04 points-per-game clip. Considering his slow start to the season coupled with a suspension followed by two weeks in the NHL’s COVID protocol, for him to be putting up these offensive numbers is quite impressive.

Related: Jets Need to Consider Trading Mark Scheifele

A closer look shows in the first two months of the season he had eight points (two goals, six assists) in 16 games. From the start of December until now he has played in 48 games and amassed 57 points, including 24 goals. That pace over the season to date would have him at 83 points and tied for ninth amongst all NHL scorers. Kyle Connor leads the Jets in almost every offensive category and has been by far the team’s MVP, but offensively Scheifele has done his part and statistically has the numbers to justify his paycheque.

Scheifele has Been a Defensive Liability

The problem for Jets fans is that although his offensive numbers are good, his defensive play has been poor. That’s unfortunately the only way to describe it.

Mark Scheifele Winnipeg Jets
Mark Scheifele has been defensively irresponsible this season. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

A poor defensive player can sometimes go unnoticed by the average fan. However, in the last two Jets’ losses, Scheifele was front and center in backchecking opportunities that showed a real lack of effort. He made a lazy pass that resulted in a giveaway in their game against the Toronto Maple Leafs that ended up back in the net – a turning point in the game where the Jets had a great start and an early 2-0 lead. In their last home game versus the Los Angeles Kings, he had an opportunity to prevent a short-handed goal with a solid backcheck – a fundamental skill taught in minor hockey and he failed to complete the play, almost appearing to give up before the Kings scored. Another glaring faux pas that not only culminated in a goal but once again put the Jets back on their heels in a game they had to win to keep their bleak playoff hopes alive.

Statistically, he carries a blatant defensive weakness on his 2021-22 resume. With over a point-per-game of offensive output, Scheifele conversely has a plus/minus rating of minus-19. By far, the worst of any Winnipeg Jet this season. This is a trend that has been slowly dropping over the last six seasons. In 2016-17 (the year he signed his current deal) he was a plus-18, followed by a plus-19 the next year. In 2018-19 he had a plus-8 rating, then followed that up with a plus-2, and last season was a minus-4. Turn to this year where he is a miserable minus-19 and the only Jets player with a rating in negative double-digits.

Compare Scheifele’s plus/minus numbers to centres on opposing clubs that are also fighting for that same last playoff spot in the Western Conference, and it becomes apparent he is not carrying his share of the defensive load.

Joe Pavelski of the Dallas Stars has 68 points in 68 games and has a plus/minus rating of plus-15, and J.T. Miller of the Vancouver Canucks has a plus-5 rating while scoring 82 points. They are both top centres on rival clubs who are within eight points of each other fighting for the same playoff spot as Scheifele, and he has the worst plus/minus of all of them. That is a huge disadvantage for the Jets and something that is going to have to be addressed moving forward.

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Defensive Struggles Haven’t Had Consequences

The problem is and has been, no matter how good or bad Scheifele plays, he has had no consequences placed upon him. Other than Connor, no forward on the Jets’ roster has been given more ice-time. He plays over 21 minutes a game, is on the number one power-play unit and participates in every overtime session. Former head coach Paul Maurice was openly criticized for overlooking Scheifele’s play and “playing favourites” with him, and there seems to be little change with interim head coach Dave Lowry. This season, regardless of how he has played, he hasn’t missed a shift and has only had his ice-time shaved once. That being in the final four minutes of a game against St. Louis in January. Other than that, accountability seems to be a clause Scheifele doesn’t have in his contract.

Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice
Former Jets head coach Paul Maurice. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Is this lack of accountability Scheifele’s fault? No. This is a systemic problem that stems from behind the bench and the blame here needs to be placed squarely on the coaching staff. To fix this, he either needs to be moved in the form of an offseason trade, which I don’t think will happen (did you see his offensive stats?) or another coaching change has to happen, which I do think you will see at season’s end. Either way, something with his play has to change. If it is a trade it will have to be a rich one, where the Jets get a deal that includes a top-line forward or elite defenseman. Despite his defensive shortcomings this season, he would still be very hard to replace.

A coaching change would make much more sense, but it would have to be a person that demands an attitude shift which forces Scheifele to be a much more responsible two-way player. One way or another, the status quo isn’t going to cut it next season. It’s almost impossible to win when the assistant captain is also the largest defensive liability.