To perform on the ice, Winnipeg Jets' top line must gel off it

It had the makings of a feel good story or, at the very least, a coaching strategy noteworthy enough to sell to fans that a mentorship was budding between one of the Winnipeg Jets' young guns and their most skilled veteran.
Mark Scheifele at the Winnipeg Jets' pre-game skate Thursday at the MTS IcePlex, prior to the team's tilt against the Flames in Calgary. (Jeff Hamilton/CBC)

It had the makings of a feel good story or, at the very least, a coaching strategy noteworthy enough to sell to fans that a mentorship was budding between one of the Winnipeg Jets' young guns and their most skilled veteran.

Turns out, however, it wasn't by design but by chance. And it even created a bit of confusion as to why Mark Scheifele's locker room stall was uprooted from its original spot last season and plunked six spots down the line beside his relatively new — and perhaps permanent — line mate, Blake Wheeler.

"You know, I have no idea," commented Scheifele about the sudden move, followed by a laugh that bellowed through the dressing room at the end of Thursday's pre-game skate at the MTS IcePlex, prior to a tilt against the Flames in Calgary later that night.

"I came into the room and saw my stall there, so that's about all I know."

Perhaps head coach Paul Maurice could offer a more expanded timeline of events, like how it was the start of his plan to build chemistry for his top line that also includes superstar Evander Kane.

"Well, training camp seating is first on a games [played basis] 'cause we don't have enough room to put everybody in the room and you don't want to hurt anybody's feelings," said Maurice, understandably caring more about his team's sense of self than the question at hand.

Centre of attention

But despite the move not being all that bro-mantic, the uniqueness behind the Jets' top line is still very much worth exploring in and of itself.

How quickly this trio can mature together is as intriguing a plot line as any other this season, with its focus magnified even more so the moment the puck drops on the NHL's regular season, which for the Jets is just a week away.

Led by a 21-year-old centreman only one year removed from rookie status and just months from a knee injury that cut his season short by 19 games, Scheifele must mold both on and off the ice with two very different, yet equally strong-minded players in Wheeler and Kane.

Evander Kane, left, and Blake Wheeler at a Jets practice on April 10, 2014, at the MTS Centre. (Jeff Hamilton/CBC)
Wheeler, 28, is coming off a career year in goals (28) and points (69) and is no doubt the veteran presence on this line. The type of impact he has on his teammates became that much more evident after he was rewarded the alternate captain early into training camp, a responsibility freed up after the departure of Olli Jokinen in the off-season.

But for Maurice, that doesn't necessarily mean he has to be the glue that bonds all three together.

"When I look at that line I don't look at Blake as the elder statesmen there helping these two young guys," said Maurice.

"Evander's a different cat in that he and Zach Bogosian are young but they got a lot of experience; maybe young in their age, but they got a lot of time [in the NHL]. And Mark's a real mature man."

And despite Kane's recent notion to the media that he could be a 50-goal scorer in the NHL, that too isn't what the Jets' bench boss is necessarily looking for, though I'm sure he would take it.

"They've got some experience, different comfort levels, but I'm not looking for those guys to go from where they were last year to 50, 60 goal seasons," he said. "I'd just like to see them get better."

A group effort

Better on the ice means compatibility off it. And although a locker room mentorship program between Scheifele and Wheeler hasn't formally sparked, that doesn't mean a motivating influence hasn't been passed on.

"The way he comes in every day and works, I think that's one of the biggest things he's taught me," said Scheifele on what impresses him most about Wheeler.

"To see a guy like that come in every single day and work his butt off and give it his all, and expect so much from himself. He pushes himself to get better. He pushes everyone around him to get better."

Maurice knows that in order for that line to have success, all three parts, including Kane, must buy into what he's selling.

But that could prove difficult for a guy known more for his blistering shot and speed and eagerness to produce points than his team comradeship.

So how much responsibility is expected then from the man self-labelled "The Natural?"

"Thirty-three per cent of it," said Maurice. "He's got a third piece of that. No more, no less."

Maurice, reflecting on camp, then added: "They've got to work together and that's true of every line. They spend a lot of time together in practice, a lot of time on the walls talking before and after [drills] about their game."

As far as games go, rust has been aplenty so far in the two pre-season matches the three have played together. Highlighted by a number of missed passes, their scoring chances overshadowed by a collection of miscues in the offensive zone. Overall, the kind of stuff you'd expect this early into the hockey year.

"I think they realize what it could be," said Maurice. "It's going to take us a while to get it there, that chemistry that when you're not speaking, when you're just moving on the ice and you know where the other guy's going. That takes time. The willingness is there with the three men."

Whether that willingness is by design or merely by chance, for Maurice — like the Jets' locker room seating chart — it doesn't really matter.


Jeff Hamilton

Winnipeg Jets

Jeff Hamilton is an award-winning journalist born and raised in Winnipeg. Jeff is a graduate of the Carleton University journalism program and has worked for CBC in Ottawa and Manitoba. This will be his second year covering his hometown team. Jeff is passionate about hockey, playing and has studied the game his entire life.


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