When the Winnipeg Jets hit the ice Wednesday night, it’s fair to say they’re not in a position many expected before the puck dropped on the 2019-20 season.
Even though they were ousted in the first round of last summer’s Stanley Cup Playoffs, it came against the eventual Stanley Cup champions. That followed a 2018 trip to the conference final and after back-to-back second place finishes in a tough Central Division, the window to win appeared to be wide open.
But Winnipeg will head into the all-star break outside of a playoff spot, no matter the outcome of Wednesday’s game against Columbus.
Plenty has changed in the ‘Peg and some of it unforeseen. Dustin Byfuglien is still not part of this team after contemplating retirement and then starting to recover from an injury. Bryan Little has missed most of the year to injury. Jacob Trouba was traded in the off-season, leaving the blue line without two of its most major pieces.
But the Jets have soldiered on. They may not qualify as a contender similar to what we’ve seen the past two years, but there’s a lot of fight in this team to still be in the running despite everything. They’ve gotten by with the depleted blue line and head coach Paul Maurice has shaken up his forward lines to great success.
Mark Scheifele stands as the team’s scoring leader with 54 points in 50 games, which puts him on pace for a career-best season on offence. Sportsnet’s Sean Reynolds sat down with the Jets centre recently to talk about how this team has found success, what it’s like playing on a different line from Blake Wheeler, and much more.
This interview has been edited for brevity.
SN: How do you think your team has performed to this point?
MS: “We’ve been good. We knew it was going to be a battle. Lots of new faces — lots of new faces on the back end. But we’ve been solid, a resilient team I would say. Depending on injuries, tough games, tough stretches, good stretches, we’ve dealt with it really well. We haven’t gotten too high or too low.”
SN: Paul Maurice talked about identifying early in the year what this team could be good at and that the players have been good at that ever since. So what was identified?
MS: “We’re not a team that is going to rely purely on our skill. We’re not going to rely purely on any one part of our game. It has to be a well-rounded effort by everyone. Every guy’s gotta do the same thing. Every guy’s gotta battle, every guy’s gotta block a shot, or take a hit, or make a hit. That goes from the first line to the fourth line, from the first D pairing to the 5-6 D pairing. We all have to make a sacrifice and we all have to battle.”
SN: Where do you see room for improvement on this team?
MS: “I think the consistency. Some games were great and then one period’s good and one’s bad. I think the biggest thing for us is being consistent through an entire game. It comes back to not getting too high or low. Depending on the game we know what we have to do to succeed. We know what works in this league and what doesn’t. We have to stick to that mentality. Anyone can win on any given night.”
SN: What is the process you go through to identify what you think you can get better at as an individual, and which areas would you say you’ve really improved in the past couple years?
MS: “Pretty much everywhere. I’m lucky I get to work with a guy like Adam Oates. He’s a guy that’s done a lot for my career, my game, and a lot for self reflection on what I can work on, what I’m good at. Every area of the game, he’s helped me on a lot. I take that to heart. Every day I try and work on something — hone a new skill, or work on something that didn’t feel good the other day, or just have a little tune up. He’s been a great mentor of mine. There’s always room to grow and improve and work on your skills.”
SN: Did you work with Blake Wheeler and Adam (Oates) this past summer?
MS: Ya. We all skated, all the guys from this team at the end of the summer, we all skated together with Adam. He’s in Toronto a good amount so I get to see him quite a bit. I probably skated with him the most I’ve skated with him since I started working with him. It’s been awesome. I love the skates with him. You learn a new thing every single day and you come out of the rink feeling like you got better at hockey. I think that’s the best thing. I like working with him because you feel good about every skate, you feel like you’re working on your game, and you feel like you see the actual tangible evidence every single day. Every game, every practice, you see the improvement.
SN: Any frustration you haven’t been on a line with Wheeler most of the season to exploit the chemistry you have with each other?
MS: “Obviously I love playing with Wheels. We have a great chemistry together. With Bryan (Little) going down, you don’t want to see that happen, but Blake’s done a great job stepping in. Obviously I miss him on the line at times — we still get power play time together — but I definitely do miss him out there. There’s little nuances to the game that me and him read off each other very well so there’s definitely time I miss him.”
SN: Any part of you surprised that you’re on pace for the most points in your career even though you’re not with Blake?
MS: “Not really no. I work on my game every day. I worked on my game every day this summer and wanted to get better and that’s what I’ve done since last season. I’ve improved a lot since last season. It’s a different aspect not being with Blake, but I put in the work to put my best foot forward and that’s what I’ll continue to do.”
SN: You guys are in a bit of a dog fight for a playoff spot this season. What are the sort of pressures that come with that?
MS: “I think it’s just the magnitude of every game. Every single game is so important. Every point is important and I think that’s where you have to find that consistency. You can’t have little blips, little mistakes that could cost you the game.
SN: What do you think when you hear the arguments that this team is overachieving based on some of the analytical numbers?
MS: “I don’t pay much attention to it. I don’t give much thought into analytics. I’d rather watch a game. I can watch a game and tell if we maybe didn’t deserve one or if we deserved one and we didn’t (get it). I don’t have much time for the analytical side of things.”