It’s a wonder Mark Scheifele can concentrate on the words coming out of his mouth. The 20-year-old stands rinkside at the storied St. Michael’s College barn in Toronto, today the site of a summer training camp. The seventh overall pick in 2011, Scheifele is in the middle of a one-on-one interview — well, at least his mouth is. His eyes are fixed on the puck, focused on the scrimmage taking place.
“I know,” he says, grinning, brown hair peeking out from his backwards ball cap, “I can’t get enough of hockey. Sorry.”
Winnipeg Jets fans need no apology. They’re just happy that the first guy this incarnation of their team ever drafted still has the wonder of a seven-year-old when it comes to the game. And that after Scheifele didn’t have the breakout he expected last season (he played just four NHL games), the centre excelled back in junior — he led the OHL in playoff scoring — before spending the summer working out to add the size he’s been lacking. Now he’s determined to be a full-time Jet. Scheifele stops staring at the puck for a moment, making eye contact: “I am confident,” he says.
If playoff hockey is going to return to Winnipeg for the first time since 1996, it’s going to happen thanks to the added depth of Scheifele as a scoring threat and cerebral playmaker, the growth of budding stars Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian, and a goaltender in Ondrej Pavelec who needs to play like a No. 1. There aren’t many new faces in Winnipeg — welcome additions include speedy former 30-goal man Devin Setoguchi, coming off a 27-point season, and Chicago’s penalty-killing specialist Michael Frolik, who the Jets hope can regain his scoring touch — but the Jets are banking on the growth of its young core to carry this team in the revamped and tougher Western Conference. The fans who pack the MTS Centre expect more than just NHL hockey now. They want a run.
Despite finishing four points shy of the playoffs, the Jets spent the summer doling out long-term contracts to guys already on the roster, largely based on potential; 11 players are signed through at least 2015–16. And none of them are making more than $5.75 million a season. First-liners Blake Wheeler, captain and leading scorer Andrew Ladd, and Bryan Little — all of whom would have trouble cracking the top line on many NHL teams — are among six Jets set to earn between $4 and $4.6 million this season. Only Nashville (but they have Shea Weber), the Islanders (home of John Tavares), Florida (home of the worst record in hockey) and St. Louis have as many guys in a similar income bracket. The Blues’ model is comparable, but they’re successful because of a balanced attack; nine guys contributed more than 20 points last season. Winnipeg lacks that depth.
The Jet with the most potential is 22-year-old Kane, a star in waiting (though he’d be better-liked if he smartened up on Twitter). The speedy left-winger boasts the goal-scoring ability and toughness to win one-on-one battles, and he’ll eclipse his 30-goal season high if he stays healthy — Kane had surgery on his foot in June and last season struggled with his wrist.
On the blueline, steady power-play quarterback Tobias Enstrom, Bogosian – the third-overall pick in 2008 — and 265-lb. Dustin Byfuglien combined to miss 46 games last season, compounding the problems with Pavelec, who struggles with rebound control. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff says his goaltender needs to continue with the “maturity process.” There’s also the possibility of added depth and toughness from six-foot-two Jacob Trouba, the ninth overall pick in 2012, who’ll leave Michigan if assured of a spot on the blueline.
That playoff run is a long shot in Winnipeg, but take a look at Scheifele, a player ready to make his mark, and it’s an exciting time to be a Jets fan, even if the season ends in early April. The interview is over at St. Mike’s, but the kid from Kitchener, Ont., is still standing rinkside. Scheifele’s eyes are still following that puck.