Is Mark Scheifele ready to be the Jets’ No. 1 centre?

Jets Mark Scheifele talks about their third period comeback, playing together as a team and finishing the season strong after beating the Colorado Avalanche 3-2 on Saturday.

It has been a trying season for the Winnipeg Jets.

The results on the ice have been bad, as the team has fallen from a playoff position a year ago into the draft lottery. Andrew Ladd, the only captain the team has known since relocating to Manitoba, was shipped out at the trade deadline in a tacit acknowledgement that the team was either unable or unwilling to spend the money required to keep him.

Then, on February 18, top centre Bryan Little suffered a fractured vertebrae which knocked him out of the lineup for the remainder of the year.

Ironically, the latter bit of bad news has opened the way for one of the few good moments for Winnipeg this season. Little’s absence has cleared the way for Mark Scheifele to take on increased minutes and responsibility – and the 23-year-old has responded in brilliant fashion.

The difference in Scheifele’s scoring numbers is staggering. His stat lines before and after Little’s injury barely even compare:

• Before: 43 games, 12 goals, 27 points (0.63 points/game)
• Since: 18 games, 11 goals, 19 points (1.06 points/game)

Skeptical readers will note that the biggest jump has been in Scheifele’s goal totals and wonder if he’s riding a hot shooting percentage. There’s certainly an element of that; he has 11 goals on 51 shots (21.6 shooting percentage) since his promotion, meaning he’s been almost exactly twice as likely to score on any given shot he takes.

But Scheifele’s performance isn’t just smoke and mirrors. That’s obvious when we compare his performance in a top line role to Little.

Little has been the Jets’ top centre for years now and in my view is one of the league’s more underrated players. He’s a two-way threat who logs heavy minutes not just at even-strength, but also on the power play and (notably) the penalty kill; he has averaged better than 2:00 per game on the PK this season.

Little is not just a good defensive player, but also an underrated scorer. He ranks 46th among NHL forwards in points-per-game since the 2012-13 lockout, ahead of Jeff Carter, Eric Staal and lots of more famous names. He’s also 46th in total points, just ahead of Ryan O’Reilly, David Krejci and Logan Couture. Matching his performance would be a pretty high bar for Scheifele to reach.

And yet, he’s managed it. Little recorded 2.1 points/hour at 5-on-5 while playing with top-line winger Blake Wheeler, which is a good number; only 50 or so NHL forwards score better than 2.0 points/hour. Scheifele has scored 2.5 points/hour over four hours in the same assignment.

What about two-way play? With either player at centre the line has worked beautifully, but it has been especially good with Scheifele in the middle:

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It’s worth noting again how good Little looks here. Yes, the top line got a bit of an offensive push, but that isn’t at all uncommon and the unit lived up to its minutes. With Little/Wheeler on the ice, the Jets scored 57 per cent of all goals and took 56 per cent of all shot attempts. That’s a pretty dominant puck possession and goal differential line.

Yet, Scheifele looks better. Scheifele/Wheeler have started more shifts in the defensive zone, have slightly better puck possession totals and even more impressive goal-scoring totals. Eventually, the goals will fall roughly in line with the shot differential (shooting percentage has been Scheifele’s friend over the past month) but even when it does it will still be an impressive number.

It’s a truism that injury creates opportunity in professional sports and Scheifele has taken full advantage of this one. Jets head coach Paul Maurice had no incentive to play around with his top line while Little was healthy, as the incumbent was performing well in the role. His hand was forced by Little’s absence and Scheifele has made a case that Winnipeg’s first line could be even better with him on it and that he’s ready for primetime after two seasons of apprenticing in a lesser role.

Even in a tough year, that kind of maturation should bring a smile to the face of any Jets fan.