WINNIPEG, Manitoba -- The Winnipeg Jets have taken a long-term view since general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff arrived, but it means that Mark Scheifele's short-term status with the organization is on hold.
The Jets on Wednesday returned the 19-year-old center, the No. 7 selection in the 2011 NHL Draft, to the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League.
Scheifele struggled to break into coach Claude Noel's regular Jets lineup, dressing for four of Winnipeg's first nine games and going scoreless in limited play. Locked in a battle with veteran forward Kyle Wellwood for ice time, Scheifele was scratched for five of the club's past six games.
"You're always trying to win now," said Cheveldayoff, the Jets' GM since June 2011. "But on the same token, you're not going to win at all costs. You're not going to throw the future out the window for the sake of just trying to do something short-term."
Because the Jets returned Scheifele to Barrie before he played in his sixth NHL game of this season, they prevented the activation of the first year of his entry-level contract. Scheifele also played seven games with the Jets during the 2011-12 season, scoring once before returning to Barrie.
Scheifele, whom the Jets did not make available to the media, will return to the Colts to skate for a Barrie team that leads the OHL's Eastern Conference and is considered a Memorial Cup contender. Scheifele has 22 goals and 27 assists with the Colts in a season interrupted by his stint with the Jets and his participation for Canada at the World Junior Championship held in Ufa, Russia last month.
Scheifele's improved skating impressed Cheveldayoff, but he concedes his prospect needs to increase his strength.
"At some point in time, the physical side of the body is going to catch up to the skill side of the body," Cheveldayoff said.
Entering the season, opportunities for Scheifele to log any significant time appeared scant. The offseason signing of Olli Jokinen filled a major hole at center for the Jets. In addition, Noel promoted 21-year-old center Alexander Burmistrov to Winnipeg's second line earlier this week in an attempt to provide him with increased offensive responsibilities. Those factors, along with the abbreviated five-game window to avoid starting the clock on Scheifele's entry-level deal, guided Cheveldayoff's decision.
"The time frame and the magnitude of the remaining games within the schedule and what they mean to the club, all of those things led to saying, you know what, the best option for now is for us to send him to Barrie to continue his development," Cheveldayoff said. "And as an [organization], giving Claude every opportunity to put the guys out there that he feels can win [with] on a nightly basis."
The Jets made Scheifele a member of the top 10 in the 2011 draft class that includes Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog, Jonathan Huberdeau, Sean Couturier and Dougie Hamilton. The Jets opted for Scheifele over Couturier, who scored 13 goals last season as a rookie with the Philadelphia Flyers, and Hamilton, who has emerged as an important cog on the Boston Bruins' blue line.
Cheveldayoff said he is not comparing Scheifele with his draft peers. The GM pointed out that players still in their teens develop at different rates and said Scheifele had only one year of OHL experience prior to the Jets selecting him.
"We really didn't have a lot of expectations as to where he was going to be or not going to be," Cheveldayoff said. "I think you have to be careful with respect to just putting an age limit on kids.
"So you take all of those things into consideration. At the end of the day, the fact that you don't rush a player shouldn't be looked at as a negative in any way, shape or form. For us as an organization, we pledged at the beginning when I took over that we weren't going to rush players just for the sake of rushing them.
"I don't have to stand here and say, hey, look, our first-rounder is playing in the National Hockey League," Cheveldayoff continued. "For me, it's giving the kids the proper opportunity to grow, giving our coaching staff the proper opportunity to try to win on a nightly basis. I'm not going to sit here and say to Claude, Claude, you've got to play this guy on this line [for] this many minutes on this night."
Though a school of thought exists that Scheifele has outgrown the OHL, if Cheveldayoff had any reservations about sending Scheifele back there, the mentorship and the opportunities that await him in Barrie eased the franchise's collective mind. Scheifele will log a heavy workload playing for coach Dale Hawerchuk, a legend from his playing days with the original Winnipeg Jets.
"The organization that he is going to is a top-notch organization," Cheveldayoff said, "and the coaching staff that he is going to be playing under isn't going to allow bad habits to creep into his game. To look at how he developed from the start of [Barrie's] season to the World [Junior Championship] and then coming here, and we were very pleased with his development at that point and time."
Scheifele maintained a quiet demeanor playing with the Jets, but the Colts will be counting on their top-line center to take on a significant leadership role with the OHL postseason to begin in six weeks. Taking a role in Barrie that wasn't available in Winnipeg, Cheveldayoff figures, will serve Scheifele and the Jets down the road.
"Four or five years from now when he's a real leader on this team, he's going to have that experience to draw back upon," Cheveldayoff said. "These are lessons that if you don't give them an opportunity to learn, they never will. If you go to college, you don't just go from middle school right to college. You go to high school [first]. If you miss out on those formative steps, you might not have the success that you want down the line."
That the Jets are not keeping Scheifele should not be viewed as a sign they harbor doubts about their prospect, Cheveldayoff emphasized.
"We have tremendous confidence in him," Cheveldayoff said. "He has proven time and time again with [Barrie], he has proven it on the highest stages at the World Junior [Championship] where he was one of the top players. Every challenge that he has had in front of him, he has met. So, I'm very, very confident that he is going to meet the challenges ahead of him with the Jets."