If you’re playing against Mark Scheifele, expect the heat – even if you’re a kid.
The Winnipeg Jets star went viral during the summer thanks to a video of him blasting a slapshot top-shelf on a young goalie at Scheifele’s hockey camp. Most NHLers – particularly those as skilled as Scheifele – can place their shots with incredible accuracy, but was there any worry in the pro’s mind that he might bean the kid? “I was pretty confident,” Scheifele said. “I like to think I can control my shot pretty well. The kid was really far over to the one post, so I knew I had a lot of room just in case I missed it a little bit. After it happened, I tapped the kid on the head and saw him smile ear-to-ear. That was more than enough to justify it. It was a fun time.”
Scheifele managed to find a nice balance of work and play this summer. He went golfing, hung out with his girlfriend and his buddies and did a little travelling down south while also carving out time to play ping pong at Smashfest, the charity event in Toronto founded by former NHLer Dominic Moore.
But Scheifele also had work on his mind and, with Winnipeg underachieving in the playoffs last season, it was important that one of the Jets’ most valuable players stayed on point for the fall. To that end, Scheifele made sure he had a support network for his summer training. “I have a great team around me,” he said. “People I trust, including a guy like Adam Oates who I definitely look up to a lot. I have a good plan that I set at the start of the summer, and I’ve been on the ice a lot, been in the gym a lot trying to improve my game and be the best I can be.”
Oates is the Hall of Famer best known for his playmaking prowess with teams such as St. Louis (where he made magic with Brett Hull) and Washington. Oates went into coaching after he retired and even helmed the bench briefly for the Capitals and New Jersey Devils, but he didn’t find much success. Instead, he has found a niche as a skills coach. Now his Oates Sports Group has built up an impressive roster of clients that includes Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly and Steven Stamkos. On top of straight-up skills, the Oates program seeks to improve a player’s hockey IQ – which is never a bad idea in today’s fast-as-fury game, where decision-making and anticipation are crucial.
Scheifele is coming off his best offensive season. He posted career highs with 38 goals and 84 points, finishing second in team scoring to linemate and captain Blake Wheeler. Scheifele also had five points in six playoff games, but Winnipeg was upset by St. Louis in the first round. The fact the Blues went on to win the Stanley Cup didn’t make the loss any easier. Given how stacked the Jets were at the time, it seemed like a missed opportunity, and the summer didn’t get any better for the franchise, which bled half its defense corps through free agency and trades: Tyler Myers went to Vancouver, Ben Chiarot picked Montreal and Jacob Trouba was traded to the New York Rangers, with Neal Pionk part of the return.
Crucial bottom-six energy winger Brandon Tanev also packed up and headed to Pittsburgh via free agency. “It’s tough,” Scheifele said. “There are a lot of guys I was close with who won’t be back. Jacob Trouba especially, we started together in the league, and have been best friends ever since.”
With Scheifele commanding an offense that still has weapons such as Wheeler, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor, Winnipeg will remain a threat in the West. Dustin Byfuglien can still bomb it from the back end, and Connor Hellebuyck has proven to be a top-flight goalie, even if his stats were softer last season.
Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff built his team methodically, utilizing the draft as much as he could, and it’s notable that Winnipeg’s first official pick in 2011, after the franchise moved from Atlanta, was Scheifele. As a center for OHL Barrie at the time, Scheifele was viewed as a raw talent with upside. Though Winnipeg took him higher than expected at No. 7 overall, there was a sense the pick could pay off big-time.
Needless to say, Cheveldayoff and his scouting team were correct in their assessment and Scheifele has established himself as one of the best players from his draft class, alongside Nikita Kucherov, Johnny Gaudreau and Gabriel Landeskog.
With the Cup window still open in Winnipeg, Scheifele is optimistic about 2019-20 despite the off-season attrition. “We know we have a good team, and it just means other guys have to step into those roles,” he said. “You just have to hope they were working hard and are ready for the season.”