They waited and waited, playing nine games and leaving their first ever first-round pick in the press box for five of them.
But in the end the Winnipeg Jets made the right call on Mark Scheifele.
On Wednesday, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff announced the 19-year-old centre would be going back to junior with the Barrie Colts, where he’ll play far more than the 11 minutes a night he had in four games in the NHL.
“It’s an opportunity for him to go play at the level that most of his peers are playing at,” Cheveldayoff said. “I would assume there’s a level of disappointment [from him] because you want to play at the highest level as fast as you can, but he certainly understood it.”
Scheifele is an interesting case in that he has been fairly dominant at the OHL level, with 22 goals and 49 points in 30 games there this season.
He was also one of Canada’s better players at the world juniors, finishing tied for 10th in tournament scoring behind only Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Jonathan Huberdeau. Both of those players are in the NHL now, with the Oilers and Panthers, and contributing at a high level.
Scheifele obviously is not and won’t be until at least next season.
He is one of those players stuck in the middle ground, where he’s too young to play in the AHL (Canadian junior players younger than 20 aren’t permitted to go to the minors) and too good for junior, leaving the Jets with the difficult decision of having him struggle at the NHL level or dominate and become stagnant in the OHL.
Given those options, however, sending him back is by far the best choice, for a couple of reasons.
For one, there’s not really a hole in the Jets lineup for him at this point with all of the veteran forwards they’ve added.
More importantly, though, Winnipeg now pushes the start Scheifele’s entry level contract back to next season, meaning he’ll be earning a base salary of about $900,000 for the next three years.
The Jets obviously don’t have a contending team at the moment, so burning a year of that deal made little sense given Scheifele wouldn’t be a difference maker at this point in his career. By sending him down, what the Jets are really doing is buying themselves more time in his development where he’ll be a low salaried player.
Two years ago, the franchise (then in Atlanta) had a similar decision to make on Alexander Burmistrov and kept him as a 19-year-old.
The team wasn’t competitive in that time and this summer the Jets will have to wrestle with what to pay him as a restricted free agent. If they go with a one-year deal, he will then be eligible for arbitration at just 22.
“The easy thing would have been to say you know what, let’s just let him stay here and play and see how it goes,” Cheveldayoff said. “The see how it goes is kind of the unknown that you don’t want to have happen with a young player like this.”
Many NHL teams are making the similar call as the Jets, but there are still a lot of players under 20 in the league this season. In addition to Nugent-Hopkins and Huberdeau, Nail Yakupov, Mikhail Grigorenko, Alex Galchenyuk, Jonas Brodin, Mika Zibanejad and Dougie Hamilton are all playing key roles for their teams.
In all, there are at least 10 or 11 other players from the first round of the 2011 draft that appear to be set to spend this season in the NHL.
Despite his success in junior, Scheifele’s development curve looks like it’ll be longer, which will likely always raise concerns the Jets off-the-board pick was a miss given the Philadelphia Flyers nabbed Sean Couturier with the next pick.
Couturier went on to make a much stronger Flyers team last season and is playing nearly 19 minutes a night this season.
“There’s no timeframe on development,” Cheveldayoff said. “Everyone develops at their own level. We feel that from a skating and skills perspective, there wasn’t any questions there.
“We really didn’t have expectations as to where he was going to be or not going to be... At the end of the day, the fact that you don’t rush a player shouldn’t be looked at as a negative.”