Leafs coach Babcock sings praise for underrated Jets star Scheifele

Jake Gardiner’s ninth of the season was the winning goal in overtime as the Toronto Maple Leafs defeated the Winnipeg Jets.

TORONTO – In the media centre in the Air Canada Centre, situated smack in the centre of the centre of the hockey universe, Mike Babcock centred out the opposition’s No. 1 centre, Mark Scheifele.

“Scheifele is, in my opinion, one of the best centres in the league,” Babcock said. “He’s a real hockey player.”

When Coach Canada pays you such a lofty compliment—unprompted, no less; Babcock was asked a question about Patrik Laine and shifted focus to middle ice—you hear about it fast.

“Maybe he’s just trying to get in my head a little bit before the game,” Scheifele, who grew up a Red Wings fan in Kitchener, Ont., demurred. “To hear that from a guy like him, it’s a pretty big honour. Something my dad and mom would be pretty pumped to hear.”

Don’t let Scheifele’s modesty fool you. Babcock isn’t playing mind tricks.

While other rising offensive stars his age have buckled under the weight of the home-run contract extensions they singed in Summer ’16, Scheifele continues to charge ’round the bases after his eight-year, $49-million commitment to Winnipeg.

When Bryan Little, formerly the Jets’ No. 1 pivot, suffered a season-ending back injury a year ago this month, Scheifele got bumped up the lineup and bumped up in confidence.

“From that point on, statistically he’s gone through roof,” head coach Paul Maurice says.

There’s a bunch of stats we could throw at you, but let’s look at the past 365 days.

Since Feb. 20, 2016, only Sidney Crosby has scored more points (95) than Scheifele’s 92. Only Crosby has more goals than Sheifele’s 41. And Scheifele’s 76 even-strength points since a year ago tops all centres, including Crosby (72) and Connor McDavid (64).

“Extremely underrated,” Auston Matthews says of Scheifele, with whom he skated with on Team North America.

Not only does Scheifele log more minutes (about 17 a night) than all Jets forwards and contribute to both special teams, the alternate captain is already poised for a lengthy career alongside a commodity every pivot craves: explosive chemistry with a lethal triggerman.

When Scheifele controlled the puck in the first period of Tuesday’s wild 5-4 OT loss in Toronto, Laine quietly drifted to the left circle knowing he’d be spotted for a one-timer. Scheifele set up the rookie’s 30th(!) in Period 2.

“For me, it’s about trying to create that space for him, so he can get into those areas where he can get it off quick,” Scheifele says.

Scheifele’s pair of primary assists on Laine’s lasers sets a new career high in points (62) with 19 games to pile on, and nudges him past Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom for fourth in the NHL scoring race as the Jets head off for their five-day break.

“He’s an awesome player. It’s so easy to play with him,” Laine says. “He can see the ice so well and make quick, smart passes.”

Captain Blake Wheeler says it’s Scheifele driving the Jets’ top trio with his attention to detail, and Babcock infers that Laine’s Calder chances are benefiting from such an elite playmaker.

“He’s always playing in the offensive zone, so that’s a sign of a good player,” Wheeler explains. “He commands the puck. Really effective coming up the ice off the rush. He and Patty have really fed off each other lately. He’s an impact player. He’s made strides every year, and it’s exciting to watch.”

Scheifele is 23. Laine is 18. If you heart points True North, allow yourself to dream how this duo can flourish long into their prime. Seguin-Benn, Backstrom-Ovie, Toews-Kane…

“Hopefully,” Scheifele says, “it’ll be something that people look back and say, ‘These guys were something special.’”

Maurice clearly remembers his time as one of hockey’s televised talking heads.

“The discussion on the desk was, ‘Is Mark Scheifele a bust because we sent him back to junior,’” Maurice says. A shake of his head.

“My kid got his driver’s licence the other day. We didn’t give him the keys the year before. He’s going to be a good driver. He’s fine. It’s OK to play junior when you’re junior-eligible.”

Twice the seventh-overall selection of the 2011 draft dipped his toe in NHL waters. Seven games in 2011, four games in 2012. Twice he was flown back to the OHL’s Barrie Colts for more seasoning before crossing the nine-game threshold.

There he studied under Jets icon and personal mentor Dale Hawerchuk, the Colts coach.

“To have the opportunity to learn from him when I went to Barrie is huge. He taught me so much,” Scheifele says. “It’s pretty cool having a Hall of Famer on your side.”

There’s more than one. Adam Oates, skills coach to the stars, sharpened Scheifele’s on-ice repertoire in one-on-one sessions this past summer. Health guru Gary Roberts pushed him in the gym and told him what to eat. He’d look over during workouts and see McDavid, unsatisfied.

Scheifele was drafted behind Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Ryan Strome and Mika Zibanejad six years ago — and those are just the centres. Some of his fellow first-rounders made the show quicker; none of them have put up points at his 0.72 per game career rate.

What drives Scheifele: Am I proud of my own work, my own effort?

“If I am, that’s all that matters,” he says. “There’s not a day I say, ‘Hey, I’m fine. I can be satisfied right now.’ You see it in Sidney Crosby.”

He could learn to win more than half his face-offs. There’s room for growth in his defensive zone coverage. The Jets aren’t a playoff team yet.

“You can’t be complacent. You can’t be satisfied. You have to always push for more,” Scheifele says. “What makes this game so fascinating is the best players in the world can always get better.”

Two seasons ago, Maurice was trying to ready the room for an opponent and simply handed the reins to a sophomore Scheifele to deliver the scouting report. Why not? The kid had studied everything and probably knew more than the coaching staff.

“He comes back from the World Cup, and he’s got a book on every guy he played with. He’s that kinda guy,” Maurice says.

“He’s going to make too much money to coach. He certainly could scout, and I’m sure he’d be a GM when he’s done.”

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