Mark Scheifele is far from my favourite Jets player. Of the 12 forwards to have donned a Winnipeg jersey for at least 20 games this season, he tops my list of the bottom half.
A fitting--and coincidental--match of his selection number in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
To clarify, he's far from seventh in my opinion of impactful players on the roster. Far from seventh when ranked as a requirement for Jets' success.
But for years I've never bought into the thinking that he should be an automatic choice for future captain, even though he scores a great deal and has always been pivotal to the current core's chances of a deep playoff run. The best hockey leaders are those whom others can't help but follow; who need say nothing but "do as I do"; whose default tendencies lean toward confidence, not arrogance; whose Herculean efforts to place themselves in this small minority of NHL stars are tempered by humility, not pride.
(An unfair expectation, to be sure, for young men whose brains won't be developed until one-third to halfway through their NHL careers.)
He's not a strong hockey leader. One cannot inspire others consistently throughout a season lasting up to eight months without a basic sense of hustle away from the puck and when returning to the bench. Leaders do not float. He is a strong offensive player who needs a leader to keep him engaged in the parts of the game that don't interest him.
All this to say that I find a curious contrast with the above to my own thoughts on Scheifele's recent comments. It's easy to assume from the comments getting the most replay that Scheifele is positioning himself to leave the disappointment of the last few seasons behind by swapping jerseys. Scheifele, however, has never been an elegant elocutionist and in context of the full interview I see most of what he said more as an honest admission that the team needs to assess its future because of current results. His remark that he "likes his game" is likely intended as a contrast to his previous knock of his early season play, not as a lack of awareness of his defensive weakness. In fairness, he did acknowledge that there are elements of his game that he can improve.
His closing comment about figuring out "what I really want" is concerning for Jets fans (not the least because it reveals some *gasp* selfish thinking), but if Scheifele believes the fan hype that Pierre-Luc Dubois is supplanting him as top center, that should be concerning to someone in his position.
From even a cursory look at basic stats, Scheifele is currently the Jets' top center. He outscores PLD overall and at even strength. He is better at faceoffs in every zone. His goal differential playing with Connor is higher. Yes, he benefits from about two minutes more ice time per game but he produces. Defensive lapses notwithstanding, he gives the team a better chance to score when needed than PLD currently does. (Perhaps not for long: PLD had better offensive seasons than Scheifele at age 19-21, and with Connor on his wing he has a good chance to reach Scheifele's offensive output in coming years.)
As for the awful -17 rating that has been the focus of some rage, it should be noted that this is just Scheifele's second minus in nine full seasons. This is clearly an aberration with no reason to think he can't improve that next year. Dubois has already had three minus seasons out of five. The great Dale Hawerchuk managed just two seasons of plus hockey in his nine years with Winnipeg despite scoring at a 1.30 points per game clip during that time (compared to Scheifele's 0.90 P/GP).
I prefer PLD's style of play to Scheifele's and look forward to his long-term contributions but the Jets are better with both of them, flaws and all, then with PLD as top center and Scheifele on a different team. Defense wins championships but not without putting the puck in the net. And finding a coach to enforce the defensive element of the game is more likely than finding one who elevates individual scoring prowess.
The odds are extremely high that Scheifele will still be here next season. Even if Scheifele requests a trade, Cheveldayoff's return expectation for high-value players stretches trade discussions over years, not weeks. Further, consider how much harder Chevy makes his job of wooing an experienced coach if the team's top offensive center won't be part of the deal.
Generally, I believe that players who want to be elsewhere are better off (for this team) elsewhere. But if Scheifele does want to pursue a Stanley Cup, top-level coaching is the one significant opportunity that the Jets haven't provided their star center. The team does not lack good players; Paul Maurice coached the team into contender status (albeit briefly), and now a coach who demands accountability is needed to bring them back and keep them there.
We all need direction. Sometimes, we need enforcement. A coach who provides both will be a boon to this hockey team, granting the welcome gift of sight to a blind bunch. Forcing them to "play a certain way" will show them that it indeed works, which will generate evidence-based confidence for even the least defensive-minded among them. At this stage it may look like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object but with the right force, it's still possible the impact could produce beautiful fireworks instead of a reckless explosion.
So call me an optimist but I say keep Scheifele. With a new coach and the bitter memories of how this season ended (particularly with the public questions about his commitment to the team), Scheifele will be poised for his best-ever season. Imagine even a subtle defensive improvement. And (most certainly) without it, expect the highest offensive numbers yet from a player who is still superbly talented in the O-zone.
I don't like selfish players but I'm not ready to attach that label to Scheifele. There's a difference between showing a player the path and making sure that he follows it; I'm not so sure he's had the benefit yet of a coach that does the second part.