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Scheifele, Wheeler pushing each other, Jets to new heights

Linemates on pace for best NHL seasons, powering Winnipeg into NHL's elite

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

Blake Wheeler laughed as he described his old stick. It had a low lie and heel curve. The blade was so straight and flat that it looked like a pizza peel, the big spatula used to slide pizzas in and out of brick ovens.

His new stick has a higher lie and toe curve.

"You ask Scheif about curves and he'll talk to you for a year," Wheeler said, smiling.

Scheif is Mark Scheifele, Wheeler's Winnipeg Jets linemate and a hockey nerd. The more you talk about the details, the more you understand why Wheeler and Scheifele are among the NHL scoring leaders and each is on pace to shatter career highs.

Wheeler, 31, has 36 points, four off the League lead entering play Wednesday, including 29 assists, most in the League. Scheifele, 24, has 34 points (14 goals, 20 assists). They have complementary skill sets and have pushed each other for years.

Video: OTT@WPG: Wheeler buries shot from the high slot

"They work at it," said coach Paul Maurice, whose team is 17-7-4 entering Winnipeg's game at the Florida Panthers on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; FS-F, TSN3, NHL.TV). "They work at all of it. Both of those guys spend an awful lot of time on the ice working. … They watch video together to find those holes. They put an awful lot of time into their craft."

Maurice put Wheeler and Scheifele together after taking over the Jets during the 2013-14 season. At the time, Wheeler was a six-year NHL veteran, a right wing with speed who liked to pass first. Scheifele was in his first full NHL season and had a great shot at center. Each was right-handed, so Wheeler could feed Scheifele for one-timers.

"I think the example I tried to put forth for him was, the thing that's going to separate him, were his legs," Wheeler said. "He's an elite skater. He and I, if we're moving, it makes it tough, because we both move well. We both can play heavy. There's not a lot of east and west in our game. I think when we're playing well, it's north-south."

By 2015-16, Wheeler had 78 points (26 goals, 52 assists), tied for sixth in the NHL. But he was inspired by Scheifele, the kind of guy who dissected games on his iPad and worked with Hockey Hall of Fame member Adam Oates in the summer. Scheifele had gone from 34 points (13 goals, 21 assists) in 2013-14 to 49 points (15 goals, 34 assists) in 2014-15 to 61 points (29 goals, 32 assists) that season.

"I just knew there was more there, and watching the progression Sheif made, a light went off for me that I can get better," Wheeler said. "I think as long as you have that mindset, no matter how old you are, you can keep improving every year."

Wheeler started working with Oates, who suggested the changes to his stick. Wheeler always could create with his skating, but now he stood more upright with the puck and could create more in tight.

Video: MIN@WPG: Wheeler nets goal off redirected pass

"What it really helps with is your vision," Wheeler said. "You never have to look where the puck is. When it's a little bit closer to your body, it allows you to let guys come closer to you and creates separation for other guys. But ultimately, the biggest thing for me is just having that extra second. When I get the puck, I don't have to look for it. I don't have to wonder what the next move is. I know I've got it in my wheelhouse. I know I have it cocked and ready. It's helped me find guys a little bit quicker than maybe I have in the past."

Wheeler had 74 points (26 goals, 48 assists) last season. The difference this season is his assists. He's on pace for 85, 33 more than his NHL career high, and 105 points, 27 more than his NHL career best. He has 14 assists on the power play, two off the NHL career high he set last season.

"The biggest thing about him is, he's willing to change his game," Scheifele said. "He's an older player. He's a guy that's succeeded in this League. Every summer, he wants to learn more. He wants to get better. He wants to figure out what works better, what's going to give him the highest chance to succeed. That's something that I respect huge about him, that he wants to be the best."

Scheifele set NHL career highs last season with 32 goals, 50 assists and 82 points, ranking seventh in scoring. He's on pace for 41 goals, 58 assists and 99 points this season. He has six power-play goals, one shy of the NHL career high he set in 2015-16 and matched last season.

"There's nobody that invests in themselves more than Mark Scheifele in the NHL," Wheeler said. "There's not an outlet that he hasn't reached out to. There's not a trick he hasn't tried. So for me playing with him, I've got to try to keep up, right? He's pushed me to work on my game more the last two offseasons than I ever have. It's made me a better player, and I think it makes us a better twosome."

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