Washington Capitals center Mike Ribeiro clears the puck as Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele and Washington goalie Braden Holtby watch during the Jets 4-2 win over the Caps on Jan. 22 (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)
Though Mark Scheifele's days on the Winnipeg Jets roster appear to be winding down, the club would be better served to keep him around.
The Jets' top prospect was a healthy scratch in the 5-4 overtime win against the New York Islanders at MTS Centre Sunday night. The victory was the third straight for Winnipeg (3-1-1), a streak that has everyone around the team abuzz. But for Scheifele, the contest marked a second straight night as an observer.
That's not a good sign.
The Jets have a five-game window (player-games played, not team games) before they need to make a decision on whether to keep the seventh overall pick in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft in Winnipeg and burn a year of his rookie contract, or send him back to the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League.
By the time you read this, Scheifele may already be OHL bound. That wouldn't be a surprise, especially when you consider his 2013 NHL season thus far:
- Jan. 19 vs. Ottawa: 11:49 minutes of ice-time, 16 shifts, no points, two shots
- Jan. 21 at Boston: 8:40, 13 shifts, no points, one shot
- Jan. 22 at Washington: 8:50, 11 shifts, no points, two shots
- Jan. 25 vs. Pittsburgh: did not dress
- Jan. 27 vs. New York: did not dress
Head coach Claude Noel has been reluctant to use Scheifele in any meaningful way -- a hesitation that's completely understandable. There's clearly a trust factor that needs to be established between coach and player. That relationship hasn't materialized yet and it looks like it won't happen this season.
The popular case for shipping him back to Barrie: He'll play 30 minutes a night and continue to be mentored by Colts coach Dale Hawerchuk. If things go well, Scheifele could lead the team into a deep playoff run towards not only an OHL championship but also a Memorial Cup.
If it all sounds like delicious seasoning for a young player, it very well could be. It's the safe and prudent path no question, but what about the premise of keeping him in Winnipeg and letting him mature within the NHL environment? There's a lot to be said for new challenges. Scheifele has already been to a pair World Juniors and has found personal success with the Colts. What else can he learn down there?
This is an argument to remove Scheifele from the comfort zone, to keep him with the Jets and allow him to take in as much as he can -- both during games and off the ice. Start the process now. Use him as a third or fourth-line player, give him 8-10 minutes a night, and allow him earn more minutes as warranted.
Here's the real value he won't get in junior: Park his locker in between Andrew Ladd and Ollie Jokinen in the room. He's a heady kid -- think he won't pick up something from a two-time Stanley Cup winner and a guy who has played 1,047 NHL games? It's not just about the on-ice education sometimes. Expose him not to unfair match-ups but to the NHL experience, so that he can see what it takes night-in and night-out.
Again, if it's about grooming him for future success then why not start that process in Winnipeg, where that success is projected to be realized? The Jets brass always talk about what a grounded person Scheifele is, how mature he is for a 19-year-old. If that's the case, then this should be a no-brainer.
And if it burns the first year of his rookie contract, so be it. That's the price of an NHL curriculum Scheifele won't get anywhere else but in the NHL.