Jets in big trouble if Scheifele can’t elevate his game after break

James van Riemsdyk scored the eventual game-winning goal in the second period to lead the Philadelphia Flyers to a 3-1 win against the Winnipeg Jets.

WINNIPEG — Mark Scheifele needs to come back from his vacation and be the best version of himself.

If he doesn’t, the Winnipeg Jets are going to find themselves in a deeper hole than the one they’re already in.

This isn’t to suggest for one second that Scheifele is the sole reason the Jets are currently one of the biggest underachieving teams in the NHL through the first half of the season.

It’s clear to anyone paying close attention that he’s not, though that doesn’t absolve him of his share of the responsibility.

Considered by some pundits to have the potential to be the best team in Canada, the Jets’ problems run far deeper than one player and this season-long search for consistency — which is very much still a work in progress — has been a serious head-scratcher.

But after Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to the lowly Philadelphia Flyers sent the Jets into the NHL All-Star break with seven defeats over the past eight games and a disappointing record of 18-17-7, it’s hard to imagine Winnipeg finding its form without a remarkable turnaround from Scheifele.

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Despite having to sit out the season opener to finish serving the four-game suspension for his hit on Montreal Canadiens forward Jake Evans in the playoffs, Scheifele entered the season with lofty expectations and no shortage of motivation.

A spot on the Canadian men’s Olympic team was something he clearly aspired to and many observers — including this writer — believed that Scheifele could be on the verge of playing the best hockey of his career.

At 28 years old, Scheifele was still in his prime.

The prospect of reaching greater heights wasn’t out of the realm of possibility, even after five consecutive seasons of producing at a point-per-game rate.

Eclipsing 90 points seemed reasonable, provided he stayed healthy.

There was still plenty of room for growth when it came to the two-way game, though morphing into a Selke candidate overnight wasn’t the expectation either.

Through 42 games, it’s safe to say Scheifele’s campaign has not gone as planned.

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The lapses in the defensive zone and more than occasional fly-by remain and his point production has dropped. But this is about more than just goals or assists — as he remains third in team scoring with 10 goals and 29 points despite missing six games (including five after landing in the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols).

There have simply been too many instances where Scheifele’s play has not reached the standard he’s established for himself during the 600-plus games in his NHL career.

To this point, the regression is real — and now it’s up to Scheifele to do something about it.

Too often lately, there’s been a casual nature to his game, especially when it comes to puck management.

A recent example came up in Saturday’s 4-1 win over the St. Louis Blues, when the latest in a series of glaring Scheifele turnovers led to him spending the final 3:27 of the contest on the bench.

No, this wasn’t Paul Maurice sitting Scheifele down for an extended period of time during a nationally televised game against the Toronto Maple Leafs like he did last season.

Given the circumstances, Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry didn’t make a production out of the decision, nor did he seek to draw attention to it in his discussion with reporters afterward.

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Considering Scheifele’s final shift against the Vancouver Canucks last Thursday (again with the score mostly out of reach, this time with the Jets trailing instead of leading) came with 5:23 left in the third period, you can bet his Jets teammates — and Scheifele himself — noticed.

Subtle as it may have been, there was a clear message being sent by Lowry.

It’s always fascinating to see how the player in question is going to respond, especially when it’s one of the star players taking a seat.

One of the things that Lowry has been reinforcing since taking over from Maurice on Dec. 17 is that ice time will be dictated by performance and for the most part, he’s been backing up those words with actions.

Nobody is asking Scheifele to put this team on his back and carry it back into the playoff race.

There are other talented offensive weapons to help with offensive production — including left-winger Kyle Connor, who has elevated his game and will represent the Jets at the NHL All-Star weekend after racking up 25 goals and 45 points in 42 games.

Pierre-Luc Dubois has been the Jets’ most consistent centre this season, but one of the things that was supposed to make this team so dangerous was the powerful one-two punch down the middle with Scheifele.

As an alternate captain and one of the leaders of this group, Scheifele has long established himself as a driver of play and right now, he’s simply not delivering enough of the type of performances that are expected of him.

Perhaps some time away from the rink will help Scheifele get refreshed and refocused on the task at hand.

With the Jets about to embark on a stretch of 40 games in 81 days to wrap up the regular season, Scheifele needs to come back and play his best hockey.

The team that chose him seventh overall in the 2011 NHL Draft is counting on it and the harsh reality of the matter is that the Jets won’t be able to remain in this race without Scheifele coming through with regularity.

That’s what foundational pieces are counted on to do.

It’s time for the real Winnipeg Jets to stand up and with five consecutive games against Central Division opponents coming out of the break, it won’t take long to see where things stand.

If a dramatic rally is not in the cards, that’s going to leave Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff with some incredibly difficult decisions leading into the NHL trade deadline next month — and beyond — when the microscope could make its way to a far more careful examination of the core pieces.

How Scheifele performs during the stretch run could ultimately play a prominent role in determining whether or not this organization might have to consider the prospect of further transformational changes during the off-season.

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