At a time when the NHL’s numbers crunchers are in ascendancy, here is one not-so-advanced stat that is hard to overlook or dispute:
From Feb. 18 until the end of last year’s NHL regular season, the No. 1 scorer in the league was not Patrick Kane or Sidney Crosby, but the Winnipeg Jets’ Mark Scheifele.
To repeat: Not Kane. Not Crosby. Mark Scheifele.
Scheifele scored 34 points in his final 26 games – 17 goals and 17 assists – to finish two points ahead of Crosby and the San Jose Sharks’ Joe Thornton over that span, which marks roughly the final third of the season.
Quietly, Scheifele’s linemate Blake Wheeler also had a productive run and finished tied for sixth in the overall scoring race with 78 points.
That sort of quiet anonymity is usually the way things unfold in Winnipeg, where the Jets adhere to tried-and-true building methods, and thus don’t get anywhere near the notoriety or fanfare players may get elsewhere around the NHL.
The Jets open the season Thursday night at home against the Carolina Hurricanes with four rookies and three sophomores on their 23-man roster. Scheifele, 23, is one of the long-in-the-tooth veterans, expected to provide leadership and production from the No. 1 centre slot.
“Obviously, we’re young, but I think we can do big things,” Scheifele said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “As you see throughout the league, teams are moving towards that – fast, young players. Hopefully, our young guys can learn on the go this year, and we can make some waves.”
Scheifele, who signed an eight-year, $49-million contract extension with the Jets this summer, was the first player drafted by Winnipeg following its relocation from Atlanta. Five of the Jets’ six first-round draft choices are on their opening-night roster; the exception is defenceman Jacob Trouba, who was unable to come to terms on a contract and has requested a trade.
The Jets subscribe to a slow-but-steady team-building progression, and when defenceman Dustin Byfuglien signed a long-term contract extension this past year, he cited his faith in general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff’s plan as one of the prime reasons for his decision to stay. Scheifele is the poster boy for that strategy, and noted how the Jets gave him time to develop.
“I think it was the best thing for my career, and you can see, they’re doing it with the young kids now,” Scheifele said. “They’re bringing them in when they’re ready and teaching them when they’re here.”
Officially, at 26.14 years of age, the Jets are the fifth-youngest team in the league, based on opening-night rosters, according to figures supplied by the Elias Sports Bureau – younger even than the Toronto Maples or the Edmonton Oilers.
This is the Jets’ sixth season back in Winnipeg and, in that time, they’ve made the playoffs just once, two years ago. Organizationally, the goal is to become a playoff team on a consistent basis and not just settle for the odd postseason cameo.
“We have to be really careful we don’t put a ceiling on our team,” coach Paul Maurice said after Wednesday’s practice. “I’m absolutely not resigned to this being a painful year, where it’s all growing pains. I think we’ve got some skill and talent in there that allows you to be in games every night.”
Maurice opted to go with Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson in goal, demoting veteran Ondrej Pavelec, on the grounds that keeping three netminders would have been problematic for all.
Hellybuyck has enormous upside and potential – and had by far the best numbers in a 26-game cameo last season, which means he is technically no longer eligible for the Calder Trophy as a rookie-of-the-year candidate.
The Jets traded away their long-time team captain, Andrew Ladd, at the 2016 NHL trade deadline, and received a first-round pick in exchange. Ladd ultimately signed with the New York Islanders, which freed up a lineup spot within the top six for Patrik Laine, who went second overall to the Jets in June’s entry draft and comes with the pedigree of a future star.
Scheifele demonstrated those same qualities last season, a year that began well, went into a mid-season lull thanks to a concussion and then a knee injury, and finally roared into high gear down the stretch.
“The body didn’t feel right for a while – it took time before I got my full strength back and it’s tough to get it going when you’re not playing at 100 per cent,” Scheifele said. “Then [Bryan Little] got hurt, which was tough for our team, but it gave me a chance to play with Wheels and we created some chemistry there. I was playing first power play, getting those chances. It kind of went back to the way it was at the beginning of the year. Game by game, I was able to put some points up.”
Carolina, Thursday’s opponent, is the second-youngest team in the league, which should make the opener fun to watch.
“You can feel that NHL tension coming back into your day,” Maurice said, “and it’s a good thing. You miss it over the course of the summer. You know the grind that’s coming, but that’s what you live for.”Report Typo/Error