Given the Jets’ season has gone better than even the most ardent supporter would have imagined, with Winnipeg battling for top spot in the division and conference with a near perfect cocktail of high-end offense, tight defense and better goaltending than the team has seen in years, the first 37 games of the campaign must have felt like a dream for a franchise that hasn’t had much in the way of success since its arrival in Manitoba. But as the Jets opened the post-break portion of their schedule, they were forced to deal with what some would call a nightmare scenario: the loss — potentially long-term — of star center Mark Scheifele.
Scheifele’s injury came on a seemingly innocuous play midway through the second period of the Jets’ meeting with the Edmonton Oilers on Wednesday. Breaking into the attacking zone, Scheifele received a pass from Kyle Connor as he got tangled up with Oilers defenseman Brandon Davidson. The resulting play saw Scheifele fall to the ice and slide into the corner boards, his right shoulder leading him in, and it was evident almost immediately that the 24-year-old, who was writhing on the ice, was in significant pain:
Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long thereafter that the Jets announced Scheifele wouldn’t return to the contest, and while the Jets and their faithful held their breath hoping coach Paul Maurice would announce the injury looked worse than it actually is, there was no such message Thursday. Instead, Maurice announced Scheifele will be out six-to-eight weeks with an upper-body injury. He was later placed on injured reserve.
To be sure, losing Scheifele for any amount of time – let alone up to two months – is a serious blow to the Winnipeg offense. Through 38 games, Scheifele has been a point per game player, notching 15 goals and 38 points, and is trailing only Blake Wheeler for the team scoring lead. But not only has Scheifele been productive, he’s been one of the catalysts behind one of the league’s most effective lines. The trio of Scheifele, Wheeler and Connor has consistently put points on the board while taking on the toughest competition of any of the forward groups, making them a unit that has been heavily relied upon by Maurice and one that has helped propel the Jets up the standings. Thus, removing Scheifele from the lineup will force Maurice to mix things up, juggling his lines in a way he hasn’t yet been forced to this season.
And all of the above is the bad news for the Jets. The good news, though, is that while there’s certainly no replacing Scheifele, Winnipeg is more well-equipped to handle the loss than ever before. Wheeler, as noted post-game by Maurice, is an option to move down the middle and take over the top-line center role. Bryan Little has experience as a top-line pivot, as well, and he’s no slouch at either end of the ice. And no matter who takes over as the first-line center in Winnipeg, there’s someone to fill the subsequent hole or holes left by the move. Adam Lowry, Mathieu Perreault or Andrew Copp could shift up a line and pick up some of the slack left by the mixing and matching that might be made necessary in the wake of Scheifele’s injury.
It’s not as if Winnipeg will be bereft of weapons offensively, either. Scheifele is among the league’s top scorers, yes, but Wheeler, as noted, is the team’s top scorer. In addition, Patrik Laine likely has even more to give offensively, and that’s saying something given the sophomore sniper has 18 goals and 29 points to his name. Not only that, but Nikolaj Ehlers’ 17-goal, 30-point performance through the first 38 games of the season is proof positive that he can be a threat in a bigger role, while Little, Connor and Perreault have each been steady, all sitting between 20 and 22 points on the campaign. This is to say nothing of Joel Armia or Brandon Tanev, either, nor have we given mention to the offensively gifted blueline, which has seen healthy contributions from Tyler Myers, Josh Morrissey, Jacob Trouba and Dustin Byfuglien, whose return from an injury of his own could come in early January, if all goes well.
But the Jets’ preparedness to navigate their way past an injury to a top player goes beyond the NHL roster, as the organizational depth chart features a few players who are in the minors only because of the logjam of young talent. The most likely to get a chance at the big club with Scheifele’s injury keeping him out long-term is Jack Roslovic, who is having a remarkable season with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose. In 31 games, the 20-year-old has 15 goals and 35 points and sits second in league scoring. Meanwhile, rookie Mason Appleton, a sixth-round pick in 2015, has scored at a point per game clip with 12 goals and 31 points, and free agent signee Buddy Robinson has 12 goals and 29 points of his own. Among others in the AHL, too, are Nic Petan, Brendan Lemieux, Mike Sgarbossa, Chase De Leo and J.C. Lipon, all of whom could fill a spot in the NHL at a moment's notice.
Without a doubt, there was and is no good time for Scheifele to fall injured. And there is no replacing a player of his calibre, one who has the fifth-most points since the start of the 2016-17 season. But where an injury to Scheifele, especially long-term, would have been catastrophic in years prior, the Jets are in a position now where they can, at the very least, weather the storm and come out the other side still in a playoff position when a healthy Scheifele gets back into the lineup.
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