The Jets signed 18-year-old center Mark Scheifele, the seventh pick of the 2011 Entry Draft, to a three-year, entry-level contract.
The signing topped a hectic three-week stretch for Scheifele in which he attended the club's prospect camp and then emerged as the team's leading preseason scorer with 4 goals and 4 assists in just five games.
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"It's definitely a little bit of a relief," Scheifele said after signing. "It was unreal. I don't think I've had that big of a smile on my face for signing something in my whole life."
Much of Scheifele’s hockey life over the past two seasons has been hectic. Just two seasons ago as a 16-year-old, he played Junior B hockey in his hometown of Kitchener, Ont. Last season, he had 22 goals and 53 assists with the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League, where he was coached by Winnipeg hockey legend Dale Hawerchuk.
Scheifele shooed away questions that he would wear Hawerchuk's No. 10 in Winnipeg. Hawerchuk has given his blessing to Scheifele if he wants to wear that number.
"I wouldn't do that," Scheifele said. "That’s his number, so I wouldn't take it."
Scheifele’s dramatic ascent in the hockey world has tested the 18-year-old's maturity and composure, but he has handled the situation well. By all accounts, Scheifele is popular inside the Winnipeg dressing room, and signing earned him cheers from his teammates Monday.
"It's been fun," Scheifele said of the big jump from Junior B to the NHL. "Sometimes a little stressful, a little nerve-wracking."
Throughout the preseason, Jets coach Claude Noel raved about Scheifele's hockey sense. Off the ice, Scheifele's maturity drew compliments from general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff.
"I love the kid," Noel said of Scheifele. "I absolutely love the kid, and I think our whole organization does. He's an excellent player. I don't only look at what he presents such as skill, but it's his mind that is so sharp."
Even with his new contract, Scheifele is not taking a roster spot for granted. The Jets will have nine games to decide if he should stick in the NHL this season or go back to Barrie. He still can be returned after the 10th game, but it would burn the first year of his contract, and he couldn't be recalled unless under emergency conditions.
"I look at it as a tryout," Scheifele said. "I've got to keep working hard. I've got to keep pushing through and battling through the obstacles."
Cheveldayoff will have to decide if Scheifele's future would best be served by going back to Barrie or remaining with the Jets for the season. Potential scoring issues further exacerbated by an injury to right wing Eric Fehr, as well as Scheifele's status as a fan favorite, could make the decision difficult.
For now, though, Scheifele has time to cement his spot on the roster and put a return trip to Barrie out of the question.