WINNIPEG — Mark Scheifele didn’t attempt to stickhandle around the pointed question, nor did he get bent out of shape over a comment from head coach Rick Bowness sent in the general direction of him and his linemates, Nikolaj Ehlers and Kyle Connor.
The Winnipeg Jets centre casually explained his position on the matter, confessed he is among the players who needs to pay attention to his shift length and later delivered a sound byte that should answer any lingering questions about his frame of mind going into what could be a defining season for both Scheifele and this core group.
“I'm definitely a guy that extends a little bit,” said Scheifele. “Being a higher-end player, being in the top-six, I think it comes with the territory. But it's something that we all have to work on. The older guys, the veterans, have to lead in that sense. That's something all of us have to take pride in.”
Sure, it’s still early in training camp and this group is very much in the getting-to-know-the-new-bench-boss stages, so it’s natural that some eyebrows were raised when Bowness openly challenged his veterans to lead the way and clean up two critical areas that caught his attention in Tuesday’s 5-3 victory over the Ottawa Senators: shift length and turnovers.
Scheifele (65 seconds), Connor (65 seconds) and Ehlers (63 seconds) were the only three members of the Jets to average more than one minute per shift (though that included time on the power play which skewed the numbers slightly).
After gushing with praise about Bowness in multiple interviews since he was hired, plenty of folks on social media were wondering how Scheifele was going to respond to the first open show of criticism that was sent his way.
If you thought Scheifele was going to show frustration or threaten to take his puck and go home (figuratively speaking), you were sorely mistaken.
“Well, I don't think he's sending a message through you guys,” said Scheifele. “(Bowness) has been an awesome communicator. I think that's something that we all really respect from him, is everything comes from him, everything comes from his mouth. He's talking to us each and every day about everything he wants to see and wants to change and what he wants to focus on each and every day, and that's a huge positive.
“He's really up front and honest, tells you what's on his mind. He wants you to tell him what's on your mind, as well. That's something I really appreciate and something that's going to be very different, for sure. But something I think everyone likes. And like I said, it's all a process. We're all getting to know each other, each other's tendencies and it's been a good start.”
It’s natural to wonder if a mostly fresh set of eyes with the reconfigured coaching staff could be a benefit for Scheifele and company.
Folks from outside the organization like Bowness, associate coach Scott Arniel and assistant coach Brad Lauer have been watching Scheifele from afar for years and may have some different thoughts about things that might help take his game to another level.
Scheifele isn’t in the business of only wanting to be told what things he’s great at — he’s already got a great awareness of his strengths — he’s open to constructive criticism as well.
That’s an important part of trying to improve.
“I think that's what coaching is. I believe that's the definition. That's what coaches are supposed to do,” said Scheifele. “They want to help you with your game, and that's what's really exciting for us players, is you have a new set of eyes giving you their thoughts on your game and what you can improve on and what they see and what you see.
“We all want to feel that they're helping us and giving us the best chance to succeed. And it's been a great start to training camp with that so far, and we're all excited to keep that going.”
This was another example of genuine enthusiasm from Scheifele, who is in position to be a driving force this season.
Members of the media and fans alike have been programmed to believe that the modern player might not appreciate their faults discussed in a public forum, so criticism — even if constructive — isn’t frequently offered in the question-and-answer setting.
But in his first training camps with the 2.0 version of the Jets, Bowness has already shown that he’s going to operate in a way he feels comfortable.
In short, honesty is the best policy.
This isn’t about airing out players publicly or sending a message through the media.
Sure, it might work in an isolated situation, but that old-school approach is well past its best-before date as a way to try and provide a spark for a struggling player.
“I don’t do that. The players will always hear it from me first. They’re not going to read anything they haven’t heard, so there’s no surprises,” said Bowness. “I don’t see anything wrong with it. The players have heard it first. We talk about those things. If you’re watching the game, some of those things should be pretty evident to you. What am I supposed to do, pretend it’s not happening? I’m going to tell you what I see happening.
“The players will hear it first, but I’m not going to pretend it’s not going on. The most important thing is it’ll be addressed with the players first. If you’re watching the games you’ll come to your own conclusions. Some nights you’ll disagree with me. That’s fine, too.”
For Bowness, this is about establishing a new baseline — one that each and every player will be held to — and promoting good habits.
The coaching staff will be tasked with holding those players accountable, but the players will also be doing plenty of self-policing on that front as well.
“(Bowness) said it the first day. On bad teams, no one leads. Good teams, the coaches lead. Great teams, the players lead,” said Jets defenceman Nate Schmidt. “You have to have guys that drive the bus in the room and set the standard for each other. You telling me what the standard is might be different from what we talk about the standard is, versus what you guys talk about the standard is.
“So if you have everybody that believes in the same one, especially from the players’ side, then you’re going to have a lot of success.”
Sharpening up the shift length was a message that was clearly received.
“You don't win by taking 50-plus-second shifts. You go back and look at the best playoff teams and you're buzzin' for 40, 42,” said Jets winger Mason Appleton. “If you get caught out there for a minute, odds are you weren't working as hard as you could for the full minute, otherwise you wouldn't be on the ice still. So I think that's something that needs to continue to get better.
“Not pointing fingers. I think there's times when I'm stuck on the ice too long, too. That's a committee thing, and it's just a mindset of going out there for 40 seconds and I'm going to work as hard as I can, and when the time's right, I'm getting off the ice.”
It’s one thing to show support for a new coach before the puck has dropped on opening night of the regular season and another to do it over a longer length of time.
How this group responds to adversity when it arrives during the regular season will ultimately determine whether Bowness’ approach is successful.
What was easy to decipher on Wednesday afternoon is that Scheifele wants to be coached and to be pushed and that’s something that will bring a smile to the face of Bowness.
For a team that is going to require a full commitment and buy-in to implement the more aggressive style Bowness wants the Jets to play, having Scheifele on board is essential.
When members of the leadership group are fully invested, it’s nearly impossible for the rest of the team not to follow suit.