Mark Scheifele is nothing if not a creature of habit.
If you’ve attended a game at any point recently, you’ve probably seen it. You may be watching it at this very moment, the indomitable No. 55 running solo well past the conclusion of the pre-game warmup.
He has to make the perfect shot before leaving the ice.
Bar down, every time.
Superstition certainly isn’t unheard of here in the National Hockey League, or any other sport for that matter. Scheifele is one of literally hundreds of athletes with a stringent routine, both on and off the ice, but what separates him is the ambition. The work ethic. The desire.
He’s the proverbial ‘first guy on, last guy off,’ relentlessly dedicating himself to his craft.
And it shows. Now in his third NHL season, the 22-year-old is hitting full stride.
“I’m one of those rink rats that loves to shoot the puck and work on my game after practice,” Scheifele said after another one of those near 90-minute skates on the used up, snow-covered ice. “It’s just me and the puck. It kind of brings you back to your roots a little bit and for me, it’s the best time
to work on my skills.”
Scheifele grew up in Kitchener, Ontario, and played junior hockey close to home with the OHL’s Barrie Colts, modelling his game after Pavel Datsyuk and Joe Thornton. A standout scorer in all three years there, he was drafted by the Jets with the franchise’s first pick
after relocating to Winnipeg.
Since that day – the one he still describes as the “most incredible moment of (his) life” – he’s developed into one of the most promising young centres in the game, boasting a shot like his childhood heroes once had: Quick, hard and with pinpoint precision.
With goals in his first three games to begin the 2015-16 season, it was obvious there was growth. The unofficial league leader in iron strikes from a year prior was now burying them at will. Today, on pace to shatter his previous career best of 15 goals, there’s no telling where the ceiling is.
“It’s all about staying confident,” Scheifele said. “When I was younger – if I was in the ‘O’ or whatever – if I wasn’t scoring I would get a little frustrated. I realize there’s no point in (having that attitude). It’s all about the team. As long as you’re playing your game and working your hardest every shift, you’re giving your team the best chance
“If it’s scoring, blocking a shot, making or taking a hit, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Head Coach Paul Maurice chalks it up to maturity – the natural progression of a gifted young goal scorer. The knowledge and understanding of the pro game is something, he believes, can only be acquired through experience.
Something Scheifele now has, with more than 185 career games to his name.
“Everything,” Maurice said when asked about what the pivot has improved on recently. “He’s stronger, he’s faster and he’s gotten rid of – and this isn’t the right word – the ‘amateur’ in his game. All of these high-end skill guys that come from junior have a lot of what we call ‘shark’ in their game. They play so many big minutes that they go at a certain pace and they have to. They’re smart enough that they can and they’re opportunistic. But you don’t get to play at that pace here [in the NHL]. I think that started to come out of his game halfway through last season. I feel like spending the year with Blake Wheeler really helped him because Blake plays at such a high tempo, a high pace. We call it turning pro. Every part of his game has gotten faster.”
The ‘shark,’ you say?
“(’Sharks’) have a tendency to slide around the ‘water’ out there and then get real fast when they see some offence. Younger players will come up and plant their feet more. Some of it is that they’re smart and they’re trying to make the right read and it takes them a while to make that read during the game. A guy like Wheeler, there’s none of that in his game. He’s in the right spot waiting and then it’s full sprint, full sprint and he’s off the ice. They’re straight-legged a little more than the other guys because it’s the only way they can play 23 minutes. In junior, their shift length is completely different; they’re up over a minute, a minute-and-a-half sometimes. Here, you just can’t do that.”
Scheifele spent a good chunk of the first half playing with Mathieu Perreault – a player with almost twice the number of games played, but thinks the game on a similar, offensively minded level. Perreault is a natural centre himself, meaning he knows better than most about how difficult the position can be, especially here in the Central Division where skill and size are of equal importance.
“He’s a very powerful centre man,” Perreault said. “He’s a strong kid. He can get into those corners and win those battles. He’s not going to go around and run people but when he gets into a battle, he’s strong enough to come out with the puck.”
A true student of the game, Scheifele worked to make that the norm, realizing early on that he needed to bulk up physically in order to compete – harder – at this level. He added about 11 pounds of lower-body muscle over the off-season, the result of a hard summer’s work with personal fitness consultant and former Stanley Cup champion Gary Roberts. Having surpassed 200 pounds on that burly 6-foot-3 frame of his, Scheifele is now more than 30 pounds heavier than he weighed in for his rookie campaign four years ago.
Best of all, that fleet-of-foot player the Jets drafted with their first pick in 2011 remains that speedy stalwart. If anything, he’s quicker than ever.
“He’s such a deceptive skater; so smooth,” Maurice said. “That alone makes him dangerous in a bunch of different situations.”
Still, Scheifele isn’t satisfied. He made a promise way back in his draft year that he’s determined to keep: Becoming elite. And who better to help accomplish that someone who achieved that status and then some.
Scheifele has personally hired Hall of Famer Adam Oates to work with him as a skills coach. Oates approached him at Roberts’ conditioning camp this past summer, and even made a recent visit to Winnipeg to check on his client’s progress. Scheifele wouldn’t divulge exactly what the pair are focusing on, but did say the former 45-goal scorer has been a valuable asset in helping shape all facets of his game.
“He’s been unbelievable to work with,” Scheifele said. “He’s guy that had so much success in this league. To have him watch and critique my game, it’s huge.”
Oates – who had 341 goals and 1,420 points in 1,337 games over 19 seasons – was also an ace in the faceoff circle, which is an area of improvement keyed on by the youngster.
Knowing Scheifele, he won’t rest until that, too, is as impeccable as that bar-down shot, 20 minutes before puck drop.
— Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com