As the 2019 NHL playoffs approach, it seems like we’re in a time warp. Flash back to the 2018 playoffs after two rounds, with four Stanley Cup contenders remaining. Virtually all pundits had Tampa Bay and Winnipeg advancing to the final. Wrong on both counts. Two key figures on last year’s favored teams were Tampa’s Steven Stamkos and Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele. Despite decent stats, both players had disappointing conference finals, and these performances were reflected in the play of their respective teams. Flash forward to the eve of this year’s playoffs. The Lightning and Jets are favored once again, and again Stamkos, 29, and Scheifele, 26, are vital components. Last season’s failures have both teams under pressure to perform, and key cogs Stamkos and Scheifele must lead the way. Who is more likely to deliver a Conn Smythe Trophy-caliber effort in 2019: Stamkos or Scheifele? Let’s take a look.
At 29, Stamkos is three years older than Scheifele. Stamkos burst into the NHL as an 18-year-old and quickly became a dominant player. For the four seasons from 2009-10 through ’12-13, he averaged more than 50 goals per season and was a two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner and two-time second-team all-star. In all four seasons, he finished among the top five NHL scorers. Since then, he has had a few major injuries, but he’s still a point-per-game player, though he doesn’t get used much in defensive situations. Scheifele wasn’t an NHL regular until he was 20. He didn’t become a front-line player until he was 23. Since then, his career has taken off. He’s a point-per-gamer who is on his team’s first power-play and penalty-killing units. Right now, Scheifele can match Stamkos’ production and do even more things. But Stamkos’ early years in the league gives him the edge.
Scheifele is the first-line center on Winnipeg. He plays in all situations and averages 22-plus minutes of ice time, more than any other Jets forward. He played 21-plus minutes per game in the 2018 playoffs, an increase of almost a minute versus the season. Stamkos has centered Tampa’s top line for much of this season but was, at times, shifted to second-line wing in the new year. He plays on the top PP unit but gets little time killing penalties. He averages about 18 minutes per game, third among Tampa forwards. In the 2018 playoffs, his ice time was reduced by more than one minute per game from the season. He played about 17 minutes a night, again third among Tampa forwards. This category isn’t close. Scheifele plays a much more diversified role and in the most recent playoffs, he received almost four minutes of ice time per game more than Stamkos.
Both players are basically point-per-game producers in the regular season and playoffs. Stamkos gets a higher percentage of his points on goals, particularly on the power play. A top-level finisher on the PP is often essential for playoff success. Scheifele, like Stamkos, is a lethal shooter on the power play. Unlike Stamkos, who positions himself on his off-wing in order to one-time lateral passes, Scheifele works from the slot area and is particularly dangerous converting quick passes from behind the goal line.
This category is not close. Stamkos is decent defensively, conscious of his positioning and not lazy, but his puck support in the defensive zone is weak, and this may have led to his move from center to right wing. Scheifele is an excellent defensive player. He is a smart forechecker and is strong in his puck support in the defensive zone. Although not as physical as Stamkos, he is much more determined in his 1-on-1 battles. One statistic is compelling: in the past four seasons, Scheifele has been credited with more than twice the number of takeaways as Stamkos.
Stamkos has sustained three serious physical setbacks. After the four monster seasons early in his career, he broke a leg in 2013-14, a blood-clotting condition called Thoracic Outlet Syndrome in 2015-16 and a major knee injury in 2016-17. He is still a powerful straight-line skater but has nowhere close to the agility or flow that he had early in his career. Scheifele has been more fortunate. After his breakout season in 2016-17, he missed 22 games in 2017-18 with what was speculated to be a shoulder injury. When Scheifele returned to the lineup, he performed brilliantly in the playoffs and continued to play elite-level hockey this season. The injury clearly has not hindered his career.
Scheifele’s agility makes him a more effective forechecker and a better 1-on-1 player defensively. He hounds the puck well and causes a number of turnovers. He uses his large frame to lean on people, but he is not physical and doesn’t have a mean streak. Stamkos no longer is a dogged forechecker and he’s more stationary in the defensive zone. However, he is a proud competitor and displays a mean streak when either he or a teammate is challenged or physically abused. He delivers more hits than Scheifele and an open-ice hit or a “rubdown” on the boards from Stamkos can hurt. His hits are not as frequent as when he used to accumulate more than 100 per season, but they still make him a dangerous presence on the ice.
The Lightning have been the best team in the NHL this season. Stamkos is one of their best players, and he is a key factor going into the playoffs. But due to injuries, he is no longer the dynamic, powerful skater who could match any goal-scorer in the NHL. He has become a better-than-average sniper with an excellent shot. During last year’s playoffs, Stamkos scored one even-strength goal in 17 games. In tight games against top opponents, he is becoming a power-play specialist. Unless he can find a way to produce regularly at 5-on-5, he must give Tampa Bay a solid two-way game and he must produce big goals on the man advantage. For the second consecutive season, the Jets are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders. Scheifele is their main man. He will finish the regular season among the league leaders in ice time among forwards and is sure to continue at that pace throughout the playoffs. His line will likely start every period, and he will be among the first players on the ice in any special-teams situation. He’ll be relied upon to generate offense and to negate the opposition’s power play. It may be unrealistic for him to match last season’s total of 10 even-strength goals in 17 playoff games, but he must come close for the Jets to be successful. The NHL is ruthless competition. You can’t afford to be sentimental about past accomplishments that are now history. Scheifele is more of a key factor than Stamkos heading into the 2019 playoffs. His current level of play has earned him this edge. Now let’s see how he handles it.