A year ago, the Barrie Colts were cruising to the best record in the Ontario Hockey League behind a handful of players who since have graduated to professional hockey careers, including 2010 first-round Entry Draft pick Alexander Burmistrov
Meanwhile, Mark Scheifele
was starring with the Kitchener Dutchmen of the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League and considering the OHL or a chance to play at Cornell University.
Flip the calendar a year, and Scheifele remains a star player. However, he's doing it with a Colts team that is rebuilding with a young roster under first-year OHL coach Dale Hawerchuk
. One season after finishing with the most points in the league, they're on pace to finish with the fewest.
Scheifele is second on the team and tied for third among first-year OHL players with 73 points, and his 51 assists lead all first-year players and are tied for eighth in the league.
"He's done better than most people thought," Hawerchuk told NHL.com. "I never like to pencil a guy or pigeonhole a guy -- this is what I expect from him. The opportunity was there for him and he ran with it."
And the 6-foot-1 3/4, 182-pound center has put up those numbers in his first OHL season while playing against the best defensemen and checking-line forwards in the league.
"It's been tough having to go against players like (Avalanche first-round draft pick Joey) Hishon and defensemen like (Maple Leafs second-round pick Jesse) Blacker," Scheifele told NHL.com. "It's been tough, but you've got to take it as a challenge and this is going to make me better, it's going to help me become the best player I can be. It's definitely tougher to get points and tougher to get opportunities, (but) it's a fun challenge. Sometimes it's harder when they're hitting you and stuff, but it's definitely a challenge I like to take."
Hawerchuk had been coaching the Orangeville Crushers, a junior A team in the Ontario Junior Hockey League, and knew all about Scheifele, who had been drafted by the Saginaw Spirit in the seventh round of the 2009 OHL draft. Hawerchuk had even tried to get Scheifele to join a team he was putting together for a tournament in Sweden. That didn't happen, but when Hawerchuk got to Barrie, his interest in Scheifele grew stronger.
"I knew about him and had done a lot of homework on him," Hawerchuk said. "We started talking to Saginaw and I mentioned his name, said if you make this kid part of the deal, and we took a chance."
Acquiring Scheifele's rights only was the first step. Hawerchuk then had to convince Scheifele to pass on an Ivy League education. Scheifele was playing in a summer tournament in Huntsville, Ont., when Barrie officials tried to sell him on the benefits of playing in the OHL.
Hawerchuk said he told Scheifele how playing junior hockey -- he spent two outstanding seasons with the Cornwell Royals of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League -- was a springboard to his Hall of Fame NHL career.
"If you want to be an NHLer, you have to play at the highest competitive level you can each and every year," he said. "That one year you don't, or two years you don't, you lose some of that competitive fire in your belly and that's very hard to get back."
"I was planning on going to Cornell all the way up," Scheifele said. "Then Barrie traded for me and I was still really committed to going to Cornell. Barrie convinced me, and then I went over the pros and cons of NCAA versus OHL and what the best route is to go pro.
"I'm happy I made the choice."
As are the Colts, whose fans learned in a big way just what Scheifele could do. After going scoreless in his first two games, he made his home debut a big one -- netting a hat trick.
"I got one and it felt like the puck was coming to me in front of the net and coming to me in open spots," Scheifele said. However, it was a bit of foreshadowing as to how the season would go, as the Colts lost that game 9-3.
Barrie's place at the bottom of the standings, however, could work out in Scheifele's favor. One scout from a Western Conference team said he would rate Scheifele a bit higher because he's performed so well on a losing team while wearing a bull's-eye.
"He has to play against everybody's best players every night," the scout told NHL.com, "where you might have a player on a real good team that doesn't have to play against the top defensive pair or maybe they're playing against the third line every night. There's a big difference. You have to take that into consideration."
Hawerchuk said there have been some growing pains, but believes anything Scheifele goes through this season only will help him going forward.
"He's going to be so much further ahead this time next year for having to play against top lines and 19- and 20-year-olds night in and night out," Hawerchuk said.
NHL Central Scouting placed Scheifele at No. 21 on its mid-term ranking of the top North American forwards available for the 2011 Entry Draft.
"Mark protects the puck very well and will take it to the net while fighting through checks," Central Scouting's Chris Edwards told NHL.com. "He's got a great work ethic. His Barrie Colts have struggled this season and he has been relied upon to provide offense. He sees the ice very well and his playmaking ability is very good. He gets back quickly and works hard defensively."
That defensive acumen comes from his early days in hockey when he played defense. He didn't get moved to forward until he was 14.
"I was always one of those defenseman like (Kitchener's Ryan) Murphy who always likes to rush the puck," Scheifele said. "Our team was struggling offensively, we were good defensively and the coach said we'll throw you up on forward for a game and I think I had a hat trick. He left me for a couple games and I started to really like it."
Hawerchuk certainly likes having Scheifele in his forward ranks.
"He's great. Everybody loves being around Scheif," Hawerchuk said. "He comes in smiling every day, can't wait to get on the ice. That's infectious to everybody. And that's how you want it to be."
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK