When you think of the NHL’s best centres, who comes to mind? Connor McDavid, undoubtedly. Auston Matthews, for sure. Nathan MacKinnon, 100 percent. However, despite having similar statistical success, Mark Scheifele continues to fly under the radar when fans often gauge who the league’s best centres currently are.
Similar to how many viewed Aleksander Barkov a few years back, Scheifele finds himself in the same boat. Statistical success? Check. Play driver? Check. Top line staple? Check. The main difference here is that that following some early season success, Barkov and the Florida Panthers have been thrust into the spotlight, a luxury that Scheifele and his Winnipeg Jets have yet to experience.
Currently leading the Jets in points while also sitting fifth in the league, Scheifele has continued the consistent production that earned him the No. 12 spot on NHL.com’s top 20 centre rankings prior to this season. But, as this season has shown, the value that Scheifele brings to the Jets extends far beyond what appears on the scoresheet.
As we approach the midway mark of this unprecedented season, here are some things you should keep in mind the next time you see Scheifele hit the ice. And in honour of someone who doesn’t have time for “hogwash analytics,” I will avoid them as much as possible.
A Complete, 200-Foot Game
As cliche as it sounds, Scheifele has moulded himself into a more complete player, shouldering a much bigger responsibility defensively. Averaging just over a point-per-game over the past five seasons doesn’t necessarily scream defensive awareness; however, this season, Scheifele has taken noticeable strides in order to make an impact at both ends of the ice.
Despite the Jets’ blue line being average at best, Scheifele’s defensive awareness has been a pleasant surprise and an effective compliment to his offensive production. Whether it’s providing pressure on the backcheck or staying tight to his man in his coverage below the goal line, the Jets’ top centre seems to be doing everything right in his own zone.
Scheifele can perhaps attribute his newly found defensive understanding to his linemates, as he spent a large portion of the season playing alongside Andrew Copp, a notable two-way player within the Jets’ lineup. Having the reliability of a defensive forward on your flank can certainly rub off on the line as a whole, and Scheifele certainly appears more determined away from the puck.
Now joined by Paul Stastny, who’s been a two-way presence for the entirety of his career, and the Jets’ top line seems set up for success in all facets of the game.
“One of the things Mark has tried to do is battle harder defensively. And I think when he does that, everything else kind of comes together for him”Jets head coach Paul Maurice, via Sportsnet
Being better defensively isn’t entirely uncommon within today’s NHL, with many star players attempting to morph their style of play in order to better serve their team. With that being said, the way that Scheifele has committed himself to being better on the other side of the puck is simply impressive, and the impact he continues to make speaks for itself.
A Shift in Special Teams Strategy
When power-play staple Patrik Laine departed the Jets via trade, it was evident that Winnipeg would need a change in their special teams strategy. Enter Scheifele. Because of his elite vision and passing ability, Scheifele has now taken a new spot with the man advantage, the spot previously held by Laine on the left wing wall, often viewed as the fourth forward on team’s power-play setups.
While this change is quite different from the shooting threat that Jets fans were used to seeing, the change has also been quite positive, making the power play more unpredictable and allowing each player on the ice to develop into an offensive threat.
Stationed on the left wing wall has allowed the play to run through Scheifele, opening up passing lanes and creating time and space for teammates. From there, he has options, as we’ve often seen him dishing the puck to Blake Wheeler down low, or threading the seam and teeing up Kyle Connor for a one-timer.
Possessing a deceptive release of his own has forced teams to stay close to Scheifele, allowing his teammates to navigate to open ice, generating more shots and higher possession metrics. Puck movement and sustained pressure have become the new norm on the Jets’ power play, and his ability to distribute the puck to all quadrants of the offensive zone is a big reason why the new strategy has gone according to plan.
While only six of Scheifele’s 37 total points have come with the man advantage, the role that he plays in initiating offense and facilitating chances is invaluable to the Jets’ offensive structure and it’s the primary reason why the team currently possess the league’s ninth-best power play.
So, while it may not always appear on the scoresheet, Scheifele’s newly assigned role has changed Winnipeg’s power-play dynamic for the better, and it simply isn’t a coincidence that the puck always seems to be on his stick before the Jets find the back of the net.
Scheifele Holding His Own Against the North Division’s Best
A big headline heading into this unprecedented season was how the Jets depth down the middle would stack up against the North Division’s best. With 10 games against the one-two punch of Matthews and John Tavares and nine more against the dynamic duo of McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, there was certainly cause for concern heading into this season.
Nonetheless, Scheifele has done more than enough to contribute to his team’s success, and that includes matching up against the opposition’s top lines on an almost nightly basis.
As we saw against Toronto last week, Scheifele went head to head with Matthews for the majority of that three-game series. And while the Jets’ second line, consisting of Connor, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Nikolaj Ehlers found more offensive success, a large part of that was because Scheifele and company handled the responsibility of neutralizing the Maple Leafs’ top line. And, of course, Connor Hellebuyck’s heroics as well.
Likewise, Scheifele has experienced a similar role against the McDavid-Draisaitl combo. While not keeping them off the scoresheet entirely, he’s proven that he can skate with the division’s best, and has fortified the Jets down the middle.
Scheifele Is Among the League’s Best
Despite the player that Scheifele has become, he still doesn’t seem to command the same amount of respect compared to the other big names throughout the league. He’s been a standout on an already dominant Jets team, he’s developed into a more complete player, and is the primary reason why the Jets re-designed power play currently sits in the top 10 league-wide.
On top of all that, Scheifele is still a point-per-game player at the NHL level and has been for the majority of his career. And while I’m not saying that he should be nominated for the Selke Trophy or suddenly be considered as a serious Hart Trophy candidate, his contributions and improvements in all facets of the game is definitely worth paying attention to.
Has Scheifele impressed you this season? How does he factor in to the Jets overall success? Let me know in the comments.
Currently a sport media student at Ryerson University in Toronto, Josh Kim is a freelance photographer and journalist with The Hockey Writers. Having worked within the ECHL, PWHPA, and OHL in a variety of content-based roles, Josh has been working in sports for the past 5+ years and currently finds himself working with Ryerson athletics as a sports photographer. With The Hockey Writers, Josh chases feature stories while also covering the Winnipeg Jets, the World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft. While hockey continues to be his main focus, Josh is also a fully credentialed WNBA writer and the host of the Get Your Head in the Game podcast, which emphasizes the connection between mental health and sport. If you’re interested in seeing a full display of his work, if you’ve got a story tip, or just want to get in touch, please find Josh’s socials linked below his articles and visit his website: joshkimphoto.com