WINNIPEG - Mark Scheifele was sent a strong message and how he responds to it could ultimately go a long way toward determining where the Winnipeg Jets finish in the North Division standings and how far they go when it matters most.
The sight of Scheifele sitting at the end of the bench with his stick flipped over is an unfamiliar one, but there was no mistaking the intention of Jets head coach Paul Maurice when he chose not to play his top centre for the final 13:01 of the second period and opening 3:59 of the third period of Saturday’s 4-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
This wasn’t a simple reduction of ice time after a tough shift, this was an outright benching, one that lasted for 17 minutes.
The move was made after Scheifele stayed on for 88 seconds during a four-on-four situation when it was still a one-goal game.
But when Scheifele coasted to the bench for a line change after joining the rush late in the shift prior to John Tavares giving the Maple Leafs a 3-1 advantage, Maurice took the type of action he generally prefers to avoid.
That Maurice made the move during a nationally-televised game reinforces why it was so important the message not only be delivered but received.
Scheifele is an elite scorer, a talented player who has spent the bulk of this season in rarified air, holding down a spot in the top 10 of the NHL as he continues a fifth consecutive campaign producing at a rate of a point per game or better.
In order for the Jets to go on any sort of run, Maurice needs Scheifele to be a play driver and a force in all three zones.
The last time Scheifele was benched in this fashion was back on Nov. 25, 2016 in a game against the Nashville Predators.
After a 34-second shift with Blake Wheeler and Patrik Laine to open the third period, the entire Scheifele line didn’t see the ice again in what turned out to be a 5-1 loss.
That move came early in a season, not 10 games away from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, with a pair of games against the Edmonton Oilers looming.
“We have some things that we value as a group. Mark’s a real competitive guy. Sometimes that gets the best of him, I think. We just need to adhere to our core values,” said Maurice, who also tackled a question about how Scheifele and the team responded to the decision.
“I liked the emotion on our bench. I liked our third period. Connor (Hellebuyck) got pulled the other night, he’s clearly one of our leaders. And that doesn’t sit well with those guys.
“We just have to adhere to those things. Now is the time to make sure we get it right. Now is the time to dial in those parts of our game, especially when you lose three in a row, this is the perfect time to handle your problems, to deal with it when you’re going into the stretch.”
Of course it can be a risky proposition to staple a franchise player to the bench for that length of time, especially in a game of this magnitude.
Star players are often given some latitude when it comes to certain aspects of the game, but Maurice felt it was necessary to hold Scheifele accountable for his actions.
Instead of letting the situation fester, Maurice gave Scheifele an opportunity to go out and respond during the third period.
The early indications were that the message was received loud and clear, as Scheifele - who didn’t speak to reporters after the game - had some extra jump in his step during his seven shifts in the third period.
“I think that's a better question for coach,” said Hellebuyck, asked specifically about the message benching Scheifele sent to the Jets players. “For me, when you see that, you want to play hard for him. You want to play harder for him and pick him up. It's a message that no one's safe, that you have to prove yourself every night and bring your A-game, or at least bring your battle intensity every night.”
This can’t just be a temporary jolt either.
The Jets need Scheifele to be playing at an optimal level during the stretch run and into the post-season.
Scheifele brings a critical component for this group, as shown in the Jets' run to the Western Conference Final in 2018 and the early departure from the qualifying round series with the Calgary Flames in 2020, when he was knocked out due to injury and limited to only three shifts.
“Yeah, I mean (Scheifele) is a huge part of our team and always plays with an edge, plays hard. We need him out there to have success,” said Wheeler. ”I thought he did a good job with it. If Paul (Maurice) cares to elaborate on that, I’ll leave that up to him. Little nuances of why things happen within our group, that belongs within the dressing room.”
By sweeping the two-game series over the Jets, the Maple Leafs built an eight-point cushion over the Jets in the battle for top spot.
The race for second is definitely on, with the Oilers one point behind the Jets while holding two games in hand.
The competitive spirit in this game was high once again, with Kyle Connor dropping the gloves with Maple Leafs defenceman Rasmus Sandin after a reverse hit on Wheeler — who left the game momentarily late in the first period but came out to start the second and finished the contest.
There were also a couple of heated exchanges between Joe Thornton and Nikolaj Ehlers (who scored the lone goal for the Jets just 39 seconds into the contest) in what was the ninth of 10 meetings between the two teams.
“The playoffs are right around the corner. Everyone is ramping up, either to try to jockey for position in the standings or try to get your game ready for the playoffs. That’s what this time of the year is all about,” said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey. “Considering there (are) no fans in the building or anything like that, I thought the intensity was right there in this game and it’s been ramping up in our rivalry.
“We play a team 10 times, you’re bound to kind of get some intensity in the series, or at least you should. That’s what makes the game fun. A large part of the game is fun. And that’s what you’ve got to try to do to win this time of year. They’re trying to do it and we’re trying to do it to have our game in a place that can win these important games down the stretch and a playoff series down the line.”
The Jets have shown plenty of resilience in bouncing back from defeat all season long and this is simply the latest test on what has occasionally been a bumpy road.
Navigating those potholes is an important part of the job.
“This is the right time for us to deal with this. We haven’t had it this year,” said Maurice. “And that’s a real positive thing, right. You’ve been resilient, you’ve been able to come back. We haven’t had that stretch, fortunately, knock on wood, where we’ve had a run of injuries or had bad, negative feelings sitting in our room. You hate losing hockey games, but you got an opportunity to deal with it now and talk about it and get it out there and get our energy level right.
“(The Maple Leafs) just lost five, so they had it right when they came in here for their two games. We’re going through it now. Edmonton did earlier in the year when Toronto ran three on them at home. So this happens to every team, it just hasn’t happened to us yet. So here it is now. The next three will be against playoff teams, and we got to find our way out of it.”
Having a strong inner belief is an essential quality and that’s been part of the foundation the Jets have worked to establish through the first 46 games.
“This is going to be a big character build for us as a team. You never know how much adversity you go through, and we seem to keep going through little spurts of adversity,” said Hellebuyck, who responded to being pulled on Thursday by making 33 saves. “Hopefully, we come back from this stronger. We have the character to do that and it's time for us to learn and prove it.
“That's their playoff game. Now we know what we're going to see in the playoffs if we run into them. We’ve got to be ready for that.”