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Mark Scheifele grows into leadership role for Jets

Center gets bigger, stronger during rise from promising prospect to impact player

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele grinned earlier this week when he looked at a photo of himself from the 2011 NHL Draft.

What did the co-leader of the NHL's scoring race see?

"A scrawny little kid," said Scheifele, now 23. "My dad points it out, that my neck looks bigger now. Everything's grown out. It's from working out, working at it. When I was 18, I was still a kid.

"Each year, I've wanted to get stronger, faster. [Retired NHL player] Gary Roberts has helped a lot with that, what I should do and what parts of my game I should try to improve. That's been a huge thing for me for sure."

Huge to the point of being included in the conversation about NHL impact players this season.

Playing on a line with wings Patrik Laine, the rookie who leads the League with 12 goals, and Nikolaj Ehlers, Scheifele had 11 goals and 10 assists for 21 points in 18 games and shares the top spot in the NHL scoring race with Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nikita Kucherov.

The Jets play the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; CSN-PH, TSN3, NHL.TV).

Scheifele's ascendance this season has surprised some, but the signs were there.

Rarely is there such a clear point when a player goes from promising prospect to producer, but Scheifele's was Feb. 18, 2016.

In a game at Tampa Bay, No. 1 center Bryan Little sustained a season-ending neck injury and Scheifele was thrust into the middle of Winnipeg's top line. From then until the end of the regular season, the native of Kitchener, Ontario, had the most goals (17) and points (34) in the League. He finished the season with a 10-game point streak.

Video: Laine, Scheifele, and Jones earn 3 Stars honors

Jets coach Paul Maurice said that late-season block of games was revealing because Scheifele was primarily matched against the opposition's best centers.

"He became a better defensive player," Maurice said. "That's valuable."

It was the basis for better offense, a trend that has continued. Little is injured again -- he hasn't played since his fourth shift of the season opener -- but Scheifele has kept scoring. Since Feb. 18, he has 27 goals and 55 points, more than any other NHL player. That's 10 more points than Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby (in 36 games) has in that time span and 12 more than St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko (40 games).

"I obviously worked on my game a lot this summer," Scheifele said. "I wanted to come back this year and start off the way I left last year, and then through the World Championships and World Cup. And things have been going well for the team, too, of late, which is awesome."

Scheifele won a gold medal with Canada at the 2016 IIHF World Championship, finishing with four goals and nine points in nine games. He played on a line with Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews for Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey 2016.

Timing was a part of his scoring surge last season, Scheifele said, and not just the opportunity created by Little's injury. The No. 7 pick in the 2011 NHL Draft had a decent first half with 22 points in 34 games before injuries hit: He missed 11 games from Dec. 27 to Jan. 23.

"I felt awesome going into last year, then had those two injuries, and that takes you out of your mojo," Scheifele said. "You feel the same with your hands, but you lose your mojo a little, and your confidence is a little lower and you're not jumping into holes as quickly as you'd like.

"Then I got the feeling back, and kept on building confidence from there."

Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said Scheifele's increasing impact is the payoff from a determination that continued last season, even though Winnipeg missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"Sometimes, when preparation and opportunity coincide, some great things happen," Cheveldayoff said. "Mark was doing all the right things when the opportunity presented itself. The structure of our team changed dramatically when we traded our captain away (Andrew Ladd was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks on Feb. 25) and lost one of our veteran centermen. The situation was ripe for someone to step up and become a leader and take hold.

"You not only saw it with Mark, but also with Blake [Wheeler] and Dustin [Byfuglien]. For how we played down the stretch, those two don't get enough credit. Within that room, they were pushing that group of players to make it matter."

Wheeler was named captain this season. Scheifele and Byfuglien were named alternate captains.

Cheveldayoff said the Jets saw leadership in Scheifele when they drafted him, and also when they sent him back to junior twice. In Barrie of the Ontario Hockey League, Scheifele played for coach Dale Hawerchuk, a former Jets captain.

"We felt the best training ground for him then was junior," Cheveldayoff said. "[Playing in] the World Junior was a key factor in our thinking. And playing for Dale and knowing they'd ask Mark to carry that team on nightly basis, he would be asked to make key contributions, experience the pressure. For his success, it was important that he felt that and had that opportunity."

Reassigning Scheifele to junior in consecutive seasons after drafting him seems like a footnote now, but it illustrates the patience the Jets had in the face of pressure to win. Months after being drafted, Scheifele, then 18, had eight points in five preseason games, second in the NHL.

"When Mark came on the scene, he did some things in training camp that were very exciting," Cheveldayoff said. "We never doubted that aspect of his game. As the real season started, you could see where his strength was.

"The pressures to win … well, sometimes you don't have the opportunities to play young players where you can give them a chance to succeed, or more importantly fail and still put them back out there. The business of the NHL is very tough place to develop young players."

The Jets showed their long-term faith in Scheifele's development during the summer, signing him to an eight-year, $49 million contract, an average annual value of $6.125 million, on July 8.

"Seeing the confidence team has in you, that's a big thing," Scheifele said. "It was a pretty quick [negotiation] process, and that helped in my mind. I would never have dreamed about that kind of opportunity. I feel very fortunate to be part of this for the next eight years."

Cheveldayoff said his confidence in Scheifele is high, pointing out that he's not only talking about goals and assists.

"He's a student of the game, a self-professed hockey nerd," Cheveldayoff said. "It's kind of nice in the game today that a player like him can tell you about history and players of the past, the nuances of old styles and new styles. Those are players that really think about their craft.

"He's a humble person who loves giving back to the community. It was a special thing, him being the first pick for us [after relocating from Atlanta], and we really felt strongly at the time he'd be someone we'd want to build our franchise around. Fast forward and he's gotten bigger and stronger.

"He's not that kid that was in the picture in 2011."

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