After a summer of reflection, Mark Scheifele eyes a career-defining season

Mark Scheifele responds to the reporter's question about wanting notable trades or signings, says he loves the current squad and wants to show it on the ice.

WINNIPEG — Judging from the tone of his voice and the smile on his face, Mark Scheifele has moved from the reflection phase to can’t-wait-for-next season mode.

As the Winnipeg Jets centre spoke with members of the media on Tuesday morning at Southwood Golf and Country Club to promote the PGA Tour Canada event he will be golfing in this week, Scheifele was upbeat, optimistic and showed no signs of the frustration and/or discontent that had tongues wagging at the end of the last hockey season.

No, Scheifele doesn't have one foot out the door and he’s not openly wondering if there might be greener pastures elsewhere.

He expressed he is fully committed to the Jets, eager to get going and feels the urgency that comes with turning the page on a campaign of unmet expectations and the desire to get back to contender status — compounded by the fact that he and several other key cogs like goalie Connor Hellebuyck, captain Blake Wheeler and fellow pivot Pierre-Luc Dubois have contracts that could expire at the end of the 2023-24 campaign.

“Oh, for sure. That obviously goes through my mind all of the time,” said Scheifele. “It’s given me a lot of motivation this summer and why I looked at making some changes this off-season in terms of how to put myself in the best opportunity to be the best player that I can be this year.”

Scheifele has been someone who prefers to focus on the present since the Jets made him the seventh overall selection in the 2011 NHL Draft, but when asked about the emotional toll of the past year-and-change, he peeled back the curtain a bit more than usual.

“It was really hard last year. The start of the year was kind of a bit of a disaster,” said Scheifele, who was shaken by the four-game suspension he received for his hit on Montreal Canadiens centre Jake Evans during the opening game of the second round of the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs. “It took me a couple of months to feel like myself again. And then you have no fans in the building in December and then you have Paul (Maurice) leave and you have a new coach (Dave Lowry) come in and then you have the trade deadline and then my best friend (Andrew Copp) gets traded.

“It was one of those years that you can’t really prepare yourself (for) until you actually go through it. It’s one of those things that I always look at as an opportunity to learn and to get better as a person. I definitely did that and have had a great summer and like I said, I’m really excited to get this year going again.”

Winnipeg Jets centre Mark Scheifele celebrates after scoring a goal against the Nashville Predators during the third period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022, in Nashville, Tenn. (Mark Zaleski/AP)

Scheifele spent part of the summer doing some soul searching and you get the sense he has something to prove when it comes to his overall game.

Sure, he’s produced at an elite level offensively — delivering point-per-game production for the past six seasons — but there's still plenty of room for improvement in his play without the puck.

“Yeah. Obviously it wasn’t a fantastic year. I had spurts of really good times and I had spurts of bad times and it was kind of one of those years that you have to learn from and not dwell on,” said Scheifele. “I’m looking to take it to another level. Obviously again, I think I’m in the prime of my career and my body feels great.

“As a centreman, it’s all over the ice. In terms of my overall game, it has to just be that consistency, not make it as much of a roller coaster and be more consistent on a night-in and night-out basis. And that’s my plan for the upcoming year.” 

Scheifele, who turned 29 in March, is preparing for what could be the most important season of his career and how he responds could go a long way toward determining what kind of season the Jets have.

He says he's invested in the team’s success and is encouraged by the discussion he’s had with new head coach Rick Bowness, though he mentioned most of the chats have been of a personal nature and the detailed hockey banter will follow.

“I've heard nothing but amazing things. He seems like an absolutely amazing guy,” said Scheifele. “A fantastic human being is what I’ve heard over and over. He did wonders when he came in in Dallas. I’m really excited to talk a lot more hockey with him. We've kind of just had brief conversations about stuff.

“But I'm really excited to get the year going, get training camp going and start to talk hockey theory and Xs and Os and a little more of that. He seems like a great communicator, which I'm really excited about. I haven't really had that. He seems like a guy who wants to know what’s going on, know the mood of the room, know what our opinions are. I’m really excited to have that opportunity with him and talk hockey and (hot) stove it up with him.”

Scheifele didn’t want to go into detail about his exit meeting discussion with Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff, saying he respected him too much to divulge the contents of the conversation publicly.

“We had a good talk. A lot of the guys were honest in their year-end meetings,” said Scheifele. “Obviously last year wasn’t the season that we wanted to have. A lot of guys were frustrated, a lot of guys were angry. I think that showed towards the end of the year. The team’s made a lot of changes and I’m really excited and interested in the changes that will happen.”

When it comes to personnel, the Jets haven’t undergone anything close to what would resemble dramatic changes.

There have been some minor alterations on the periphery of the roster but no headline grabbers — but that was a topic that elicited some push back from Scheifele on Tuesday when the subject was broached.

“Would you have liked to see a lot of trades and free agent signings?” Scheifele asked rhetorically before engaging with a more detailed answer after the question was thrown back at him. “That’s not really my job. That’s (Cheveldayoff’s) job to do all that. With the squad that we had last year, everyone was touting us as the next Stanley Cup champions. I think we have a great team, we have a great group of guys. 

“Obviously last year wasn’t the best for our team but we have a fantastic roster, a lot of great pieces and a lot of guys who are going to be fighting for spots. I think we’re going to have to just stop talking about it and show it on the ice.”

That’s the thing.

After making a pair of trades for veteran players to stabilize the defence corps, the results weren’t there last season for the Jets and that’s not to pin the blame on the blue-line either.

It just didn’t prove to be the magic elixir.

Maurice resigned unexpectedly and, for whatever reason, the pieces of this puzzle just didn’t seem to fit — or at least they didn’t produce the desired result.

The Jets gave up too many quality chances defensively and had far too many games when offence was tough to come by.

For good measure, both special teams units weren’t good enough.

Add it all up and it’s not difficult to see how the Jets slipped from bubble team to also-ran status in the Central Division.

To this point, the Jets are banking on an overhauled coaching staff and mostly internal improvement to help turn things around.

Some will view that as a risky proposition and you can understand why.

But when a coaching staff can count on the most skilled players being committed to the system and playing with the proper level of engagement, that can provide a solid foundation for the Jets to build on.

Ultimately, when it comes to the buy-in that’s required for the Jets to be better structurally, Scheifele is going to need to be one of the guys leading that charge — and not just because he wears a letter on his jersey as an alternate captain.

Scheifele ready to tee it up at Manitoba Open

Scheifele knows a thing or two about dealing with pressure, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be feeling nerves when he steps to the first tee at the Manitoba Open on Thursday afternoon.

It will mark the second time in his career he steps onto the field of the PGA Tour Canada event at Southwood Golf and Country Club, and the first time since 2018. This year, he's hoping to have a strong showing after a solid summer on the links that he’s mixed in with his summer training.

Scheifele had some strong moments in the 2018 event, but has his handicap down to a 1.7 after being a 10 during his PGA Tour Canada debut.

“I’m definitely a better golfer. I’ll tell you that,” said Scheifele, who is in the field on a sponsor’s exemption. “It was kind of thrown together at the last second — I think I filled in for Blake (Wheeler), who wasn’t able to do it — so I wasn’t able to prepare as much. I liked golf, but not as much as I do now. I’d say ever since playing in this tournament and seeing how good these players are and the talent they have, I found a newer love for it. It’s right there behind hockey in terms of the sports I love.

“I’ve definitely improved a lot since that day. I’m definitely still going to be nervous. I’m probably still going to black out on the first tee and spray one right. It’ll be one of those really fun experiences I get to do again.”

Scheifele has played a number of high-quality courses around North America this summer — including Bandon Dunes and Los Angeles Country Club — and he’s enjoying the challenge of pushing himself to be better in the two sports he loves the most.

“Golf is the only time that hockey is off my mind,” said Scheifele. “I get on the golf course, or I get on the range, and hockey kind of goes out the window. It’s really the only minutes and hours of the day that hockey’s off my mind, where I just focus on shots and working on my game and all that stuff. So that’s kind of how I use my love of golf. 

“It’s kind of my therapy away from the game. Obviously get to play with good buddies, get to be outside and active. But it’s my therapy, my time away from hockey. And then as soon as my round is done, hockey is on my mind again and (I’m) back at it.”

There are two Manitobans in the field this week, Braxton Kuntz of Breezy Bend (who has won the Manitoba men’s amateur championship in consecutive years) and Colwyn Abgrall of Southwood (who earned his spot in the Monday qualifier).

Former Jets forward Adam Brooks, who signed with the Philadelphia Flyers as a free agent this summer, will be Scheifele’s caddie this week.

“He’s a fun guy to be around and he loves golf as much as I do,” said Scheifele. “He’ll have to keep things light, that’s for sure.”

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