Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele are proven NHL playmakers, yet some last-minute tutoring from one of hockey’s all-time great puckhandlers can’t hurt, right?
Skills coach Adam Oates, the 18th-best point producer in league history, led a session Wednesday morning with his NHL clients from Winnipeg, a contingent that included the Jets captain and his centre along with forward Andrew Copp and defencemen Josh Morrissey and Dmitry Kulikov.
Oates and ex-NHLer Teddy Purcell worked with them Tuesday as well.
Scheifele said receiving tips from someone who earned a hall-of-fame career out of making defencemen and goalies looks vulnerable is time well spent, particularly with training camp looming.
“We wanted him to come out. He’s a busy man, he’s seeing a lot of guys, so we just wanted a little tune-up before the season. Obviously at camp, it’s a lot more talk about systems than individual work, so we wanted to bring him in for that,” Scheifele said from Bell MTS Iceplex.
“It’s really specialized (training). We all have things we do well but we all have our problems, things we don’t do as well. (Oates) is really good at finding those individualistic properties about our game that no one else really sees. I’d say he’s probably the smartest hockey mind I’ve ever met. So, it’s an honour to work with him.”
Jets players and prospects will undergo medicals today, participate in on-ice fitness testing Friday and begin regular skates Saturday morning for training camp at the Iceplex.
Most of the other Jets regulars had an informal 75-minute skate Wednesday. Though he’s been skating with the group, Morrissey, a restricted free agent, has still not agreed to a new contract and isn’t listed on the Jets’ training camp roster.
He likely won’t make himself available to be assessed by team doctors without a deal. His Edmonton-based agent, Gerry Johannson, did not return calls Wednesday.
Oates entered the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012, eight years after his brilliant 19-year NHL career came to a close. He never won a Stanley Cup but with 1,337 games under his belt he retired as better than a point-a-game player (341 goals, 1,079 assists). Only six players in history registered more helpers than the now 56-year-old product of Toronto’s Weston neighbourhood.
The former Washington Capitals coach (2012-14) turned to individual skills coaching in 2015 and now has a stable of about 40 players to whom he offers his time and expertise, such as Steve Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Jack Eichel of the Buffalo Sabres, the Minnesota Wild’s Zach Parise and James van Riemsdyk of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Wheeler had a career-high 91 points during the 2017-18 season, sharing the league assist lead (68) with Flyers’ forward Claude Giroux. Scheifele, meanwhile, had 60 points in 60 games in an injury-shortened campaign, and two seasons ago had 32 goals to go along with 50 assists, eighth most in the NHL that year.
They’re a couple of his prized pupils, Oates said.
“Last year was fantastic, wasn’t it? It was a pleasure to watch them all year long,” he said. “I feel like a proud dad when I watch the guys. A guy makes a play that we still talk about in the summer. It’s great, it’s a great feel.”
Players are always looking for an edge and he’s there to help, Oates said.
“Not everyone plays the same way but there’s certain aspects of the game that you try and work on. When we start the summer there’s a little bit of a plan, in terms of what I want to see, so that they’re rocking going into camp, they’re feeling good about themselves,” he said.
Oates doesn’t offer up his knowledge for free but continues to generate new business. “It’s all referrals, all word of mouth. I don’t solicit. I don’t go out for it,” he said. “They call me, which again, is a very nice compliment.”
If NHL organizations are annoyed Oates is meddling with their star performers, he certainly isn’t hearing any grumbling lately.
In early 2016, ex-Wild head coach Mike Yeo — just days after being axed by the club — openly questioned Oates’ relationship with a couple of Minnesota players, including Parise.
Oates said the story was somewhat overblown.
“Well, he just got fired. I would hope it was a poor choice of words by him. I didn’t talk to him. He didn’t say he didn’t like me working with the players, he just said he didn’t like me being in the stands for the morning skate,” he said. “People held on to that.
“At the end of the day, at first, a couple of years ago (skills coaching) was a weird thing, it was new. Just like strength training was new five to seven years ago, (ex-NHLer and fitness expert) Gary Roberts was new at one point. Now, it’s commonplace.”
And if goalies such as the Jets’ Connor Hellebuyck — whose work over the past few summers with trainer Adam Francilia at the NET360 program in Kelowna, B.C., has been well documented — can get extra help, so can the guys up front, Oates said.
“They’re looking for private tutoring. That’s growing. I enjoy figuring it out and making the guys better, I really do.”
Oates, the set-up man for renowned goal scorer Brett Hull for three seasons with the St. Louis Blues, doesn’t just examine the traits of the player, he takes into account the tool the individual is using as well — such as stick length, curve and blade lie.
“I’m a fanatic about it,” he said, grinning. “You watch a game and you see a guy bobble the puck, and there’s millions of examples. Almost every single goal somebody either bobbled it or made a really good play with the puck. When you watch, we try and get rid of the bobble. That’s all we do. The better you get at getting that puck flat and making a play, the better you are.”
On the topic of stick length, it was tough not to ask Oates for his thoughts on former Jets defenceman Toby Enstrom, whose use of a ridiculously long twig was almost legendary.
“You don’t want to ask me that. I don’t want to talk about it,” he said. Yet, then he did.
“At the end of the day, a great player, that in my mind, could have been better.”
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).