Scheifele looks to bounce back in second half

The question to Winnipeg Jets interim head coach Dave Lowry was a relatively simple one: Has Mark Scheifele’s effort level been where it’s needed to be this season? The awkward pregnant pause that immediately followed — approximately 3.1 seconds in duration to be precise — suggested the answer was anything but easy.

Such is the current state of the hockey club and Scheifele, who entered play Tuesday night against Minnesota as the centre of attention around here. His game has noticeably lagged of late, with just one assist in the last four games, and only one goal in the last nine. It’s no coincidence the Jets limped into the All-Star break losing seven of eight. In their lone victory in that span, Scheifele was stapled to the bench by Lowry for the final 3:27 following an egregious turnover in his own end.

“I think that Mark is competing,” is how Lowry eventually and very carefully replied to the pointed query following the morning skate. “The big thing is that we’re in a position and we’re not going to look at one individual, we’re going to look at our team. We need more from our group.”

It’s no surprise Lowry didn’t want to throw Scheifele under the bus, then step on the accelerator. Diplomacy, at least publicly, is the safest play.

“I think our expectation is our best players have to be our best players. These games are critical for us. You look at your veterans, you look at your leadership, and you look at your top players,” said Lowry. “I think Mark is a student of the game. He has a very good understanding. Our expectation is that he’s the best player and he is our best player. You always like to hear that there’s more.”

Scheifele had 10 goals and 19 assists through 36 games prior to facing Minnesota. That puts him on pace for his worst offensive season since way back in 2014-15, which was his second full year in the league. He’s missed six other games — the season opener as he finished serving a four-game suspension that began in the playoffs last spring, and then five more after he got COVID in mid-October.

“Yeah, it’s been an eventful one. It’s been an eventful one for the whole team. The whole league. Dealing with the protocols, dealing with all that stuff. A lot of new guys in the lineup,” Scheifele said Tuesday of the rocky first half.

The 28-year-old, who is signed for two more seasons here in Winnipeg before becoming an unrestricted free agent, is hoping the weeklong break that just occurred will lead to better results.

“For me, it was a nice reset, I took some time away from the game, away from the rink,” he said. “I’ve got to come out and have a good second half. It wasn’t what I wanted. It wasn’t the way I pride myself in. I’ve just gotta continue to play my game, try to play the game the right way. Try to play the system that we have set in front of us, and just go from there.”

One big change for Scheifele this season has been the revolving door on his wings. For the past couple seasons, you could mark Blake Wheeler and Kyle Connor down in permanent ink, and the trio enjoyed plenty of success together. Now, Connor has found success while playing with Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Wheeler has missed long stretches as well with a COVID followed by a serious leg injury. Scheifele had been skating with Nikolaj Ehlers until the dynamic Dane suffered a major injury last month.

On Tuesday, he skated in between Wheeler and veteran Paul Stastny. Andrew Copp, who has spent some time on his wing, moved down to centre the second line between Connor and Cole Perfetti with Dubois now sidelined with COVID.

It was suggested to Lowry all those different faces might be a factor.

“I hope not,” the coach replied. “The big thing is — and we’ve talked about it from Day 1 — is you have to have the ability to adapt and there are so many variables that go into a lineup now. There are so many things that are beyond our control. Mark missed a period of time at the beginning. His linemates have missed a period of time trying to get through COVID or were injured. There are so many things that you don’t control. The one thing that you try to reiterate is to control what you can. And that’s being ready to play tonight.”

Scheifele acknowledged the inconsistent play of both himself and the team but didn’t identify a root cause.

“We’ve had a lot different players in the lineup, obviously a new coach,” he said. “There’s definitely changes, but it’s obviously something we don’t want, we want to be a consistent team, we want to know what each other is doing out there. We had a little bit of a refresh, a little bit of a reset and now we get to play a lot of hockey. It’s going to be a grind. We got our work cut out for us. We’ve got to win games, we’ve got to play good and it starts (Tuesday night).”

AN UPDATE FROM SICK BAY: The Jets currently have nine players out with injuries and illnesses, and Lowry gave updates on them Tuesday.

Dubois and defenceman Neal Pionk, who are both in COVID protocol, are expected to be available for back-to-back road games on Friday and Saturday in Dallas and Nashville. Forward Austin Poganski, who tested positive on Monday, will likely not be cleared to play in time.

Ehlers spent the last couple weeks visiting family in Denmark as he allows his knee to heal. He flew back to Winnipeg earlier this week, but isn’t ready to start practising just yet despite being eligible to come off long-term injured reserved next Monday.

“He won’t be with the group for a while. My understanding is he’s still a long ways away. That might be two weeks, it might be a month. I can’t give you a definitive day. He went home because he could do stuff away. He comes back now and we can ramp it up and see where he is,” said Lowry.

Injured forward David Gustafsson and injured defencemen Nathan Beaulieu both skated on their own Tuesday but there is no timetable for their returns. Beaulieu participated in Monday’s practice in a non-contact jersey but left early.

“He didn’t feel 100 per cent. (Monday), he wasn’t comfortable in the group. We’ll make sure that we manage that. We need our guys to come back off injury and not miss anymore,” said Lowry.

Logan Stanley participated in the morning skate in a non-contact jersey and is getting closer, possibly as an option this weekend. Defenceman Dylan Samberg and forward C.J. Suess are not yet skating.

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

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