WINNIPEG — Mark Scheifele was in no mood for nostalgia, he had much more important things on his mind.
On a night Paul Maurice and Jamie Kompon returned to Winnipeg on the bench of the visiting team, the Winnipeg Jets star centre was asked multiple times about the reception his former head coach would, should and eventually did receive.
Scheifele was mostly evasive in his answers, either unable or perhaps unwilling to engage in the topic at hand.
After notching a pair of goals in a 5-2 victory over the Florida Panthers on Tuesday night, Scheifele was then asked directly about having any additional motivation for the game with Maurice back in town.
“For sure. I’m not going to lie, that was a good win in my books. I’m pretty happy with that one,” said Scheifele. “At the end of the day, we’ve moved on. We’re a different team this year than we were last year. It’s been exciting for a lot of us. You see the rejuvenated faces in this room.
“(New Jets head coach Rick Bowness) has been on us each and every day, whether it’s a good game or a bad game, he’s always looking to help us. I think it’s been awesome for me, it’s been awesome for a lot of us, we’re being pushed and we’re being challenged to reach our full potential. That does a lot for our team.”
In dissecting the subject further, it probably comes down to what Scheifele didn’t say rather than what was actually uttered.
You got the sense that Scheifele wasn’t all that interested in airing any dirty laundry, but it’s fair to suggest that the relationship with Maurice was at least strained by the end.
Whether that relates to the personal interactions or Maurice’s abrupt departure remains open to interpretation.
This may be one of those wounds that heals over time, but it’s been clear in Scheifele’s words since training camp that he’s enjoying the new direction that Bowness has brought to the Jets, who improved to 16-7-1 and moved into a tie for top spot in the Central Division while holding two games in hand. The Jets face the St. Louis Blues on Thursday to open a two-game road trip.
By his own admission, Scheifele’s love of the game had waned over the past several seasons but that’s no longer the case.
The narrative surrounding his lacklustre defensive-zone engagement levels has been replaced — and rightfully so — by talk about his torrid goal-scoring pace.
By notching his team-leading 14th and 15th goals on Tuesday, Scheifele is on pace to eclipse his career-best mark of 38 — set during the 2018-19 campaign.
In his scrum with reporters following the game, Scheifele wasn’t interested in taking credit for his output, dishing the plaudits to his linemates and the skilled players he’s on the ice with.
“I think just his knack to be able to score in different ways,” said Kyle Connor.
“He’s got a great release and a great shot, so I’m encouraging him all of the time,” added Bowness. “Shoot the puck.”
As important as the production has been, Scheifele’s commitment away from the puck is on the rise and that’s something his teammates — and the Jets coaching staff — also values.
He’s not cheating for offence and he’s been responsible in his down-low responsibilities while assisting the D-men on breakouts and zone exits.
“We ask all our forwards, whoever’s low, to get back and help our defence. Especially against an aggressive team like these guys, you can’t rely strictly on your D,” said Bowness. “You have to go back there. They’re coming hard, you need that third guy low. Mark’s very good at that. He’s very good at making the read but you see how low he’s getting it. And also, when you get it, you’re going to generate more speed because you’re coming from low and yeah, you’re just going to generate speed.”
For the Jets to rebound this season, Scheifele was going to need to be one of the team’s most impactful players — and he’s held up that end of the deal to date.
As for Connor, talk of his slow start has also been replaced.
By notching two goals of his own, he became the third member of the Jets (Pierre-Luc Dubois, who had three helpers on Tuesday, and the aforementioned Scheifele are the others) to hit double digits in goals.
After scoring just twice in the first 13 games, Connor is up to 26 points in 24 games and finds himself one point behind Josh Morrissey for the team scoring lead.
Slowly but surely, Connor was able to battle through an early-season stretch of being snake-bitten around the net and now he’s been heating up and delivering timely goals — including his fourth game-winner of the season on Tuesday.
“You’ve got to remember, early in those first 10 games, he was getting Grade A chances. He was playing great, just wasn’t getting points, wasn’t getting goals,” said Bowness. “All we said was just keep encouraging (him), keep doing what you’re doing and eventually they’re going to go in and things will change for you.”
Things did change for Connor, just like they have for Scheifele after what was an important off-season of reflection and a coaching change that he’s clearly embraced with open arms.