A total of 15 members of the Winnipeg Jets made themselves available to the media during the team’s season-ending Zoom calls on Wednesday morning.
And there was little doubt the player that was missed the most by his teammates during the second-round loss to Montreal also had the most to say.
Mark Scheifele made it very loud and clear he is still extremely unhappy about the four-game suspension he received for a hard and devastating hit on Canadiens forward Jake Evans with less than a minute remaining in the series opener.
“Obviously I had my chance to speak my piece. In the hearing, I don’t know how much was actually absorbed by them,” he said.
“It’s a hard one. At the end of the day, you regret the outcome. You never want to see a guy hurt and I’m a guy that respects this game and respects players. I’m out there to score goals, I’m not out there to hit guys. I’m trying to prevent a goal.
“I’d like an answer from them of what would have been a better thing to do. I’ve replayed the thing over and over in my mind and the only real thing is if I gave up on my teammates on that play and just didn’t backcheck.
“It’s over and done with and I’m not going to continue to cry over it. It’s the decision they made. I still believe it was excessive. They knocked me out of the series. I’m just going to stop talking before I get fined or something like that.”
But Scheifele didn’t stop there when asked if the suspension would affect the way he approached playing the game in going forward.
“Not at all. The way we handle setbacks is what defines us. I have amazing people around me and I’m a very fortunate person. I can’t let one thing knock me down. It’s crushing that my season was ended by that and I wasn’t able to play in this series. I thought I was going to be tried to be shut down by Phillip Danault; it was the Department of Player Safety that shut me down. That definitely sucks. But that’s life. I can’t dwell on that hit for the rest of my life.”
And George Parros and his crew weren’t the only people caught in the crosshairs of Winnipeg’s No. 55. Scheifele was asked about how things are perceived with the respect to the head coach when a team doesn’t arrive at as lofty a destination as was expected.
“Well, first of all, you say a team — well, you guys wrote us off from the beginning. The media had us not making the playoffs, being a bottom feeder in the league. You guys get caught contradicting your guys’ selves all the time. You guys didn’t have any hope for this team from day one. And I think we proved you guys wrong all season long. We made the playoffs, we swept the Edmonton Oilers, we went to the second round of the playoffs. It obviously didn’t end the way we wanted it to.”
Part of that question also dealt with being benched by Paul Maurice in the second period of a nationally televised home game versus Toronto on April 24 and while Scheifele at the time did not agree with the coach’s decision, he says his relationship with Maurice remains strong.
“He’s a fantastic coach. He’s definitely one of the good ones in this league. He definitely has my full support.”
Captain Blake Wheeler, who admitted he’s not a big fan of having to reveal injuries or other ailments during the end-of-season interview process, also left no doubt where he stands on the job Maurice has done and continues to do — seven-plus seasons into the second-longest current coaching tenure in the NHL.
“I’ve been on teams where the coach has lost the team and the message isn’t being received and the guys roll their eyes every time he says something,” Wheeler said. “But that’s just never happened with Paul. His message is still received. The guys have a ton of respect for him because, first of all, he’s a good person and a good man and he treats us as people.
“In some respects, the way Paul handled our team this year was almost as good as he’s ever been. A lot of the decisions he made as far as line combinations and what have you were right on. I think his feel for our team was really good this year. There are a lot of coaches who haven’t won playoff rounds. To win a playoff round this year was not our goal, but there is still some kind of accomplishment in that.”
But the key is whether the Jets have been moving forward since advancing to the final four in 2018, and whether they can — with this core group — keep the needle moving forward.
Adam Lowry, who signed a five-year contract extension late in the season, believes some moves by GM Kevin Cheveldayoff have been part of that progress — even if the makeup of the team is a little different from the lineup that went to Game 5 of the Western Conference final three years ago.
“We still have a lot of key players. We have one of the best goalies, if not the best goalie in the world. We have a chance to win every night with him. You look at the season Nik Ehlers had and how he continues to evolve as a player. How Scheif comes into every season and he continues to get better. KC (Kyle Connor), you look at Copper (Andrew Copp), you look at J Mo (Josh Morrissey), P (Neal Pionk) — guys like that and I think they’re continuing to get better.”
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Lowry didn’t mention the strides his linemate Mason Appleton has made over that time frame. And perhaps add Logan Stanley to that list as another piece being added to the puzzle. The big, six-foot-seven and 228-pound defenceman broke through in 2021 after being selected in the middle stages of the first round five years earlier. And Stanley, who scored twice in the season-ending 3-2 overtime loss to Montreal, says he’ll definitely be going into training camp in the fall with more confidence than any of his previous three professional seasons.
“Knowing I can play with these guys and just being comfortable, I think, with the guys in the room — but not being comfortable in the position kind of thing,” he said. “I’m not satisfied with where I’m at right now. I want to get better. I’ve got a lot of improvements to make in my game. I’m going to go and take a week off or so and then get back on the ice, get back in the gym and try to come into camp in even better shape.”
Stanley’s emergence would be one significant step in the right direction in helping the Jets become a tougher or more difficult team to play against — which pending restricted free agent Andrew Copp mentioned as an item for the to-do list in going forward. And so would a bounceback season from Pierre-Luc Dubois, who just never seemed to come close to delivering on the maximum potential that was envisioned following the Jan. 23 trade of Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic.
“I’ll be the first guy to say I didn’t play how I should have,” Dubois said. “I didn’t play how I thought I could and how I know I can. It was a disappointing year for me. It was a lot of ups and downs. The only person to blame is me. This summer is going to be a big important summer.”
Not just for Dubois, but also for the restricted free agent trio of Stanley, Pionk and Copp. Stanley is just going into his second contract so that should be a fairly smooth process. But Pionk and Copp both have arbitration rights.
The low-key Pionk says he’s leaving all that to his agent, while Copp said he doesn’t think anything is off the table at this point.
“We’ll go through those conversations where they see me going forward here, the direction of the team — what we’re going to do to make us better — are the two biggest things for me,” Copp said.
And while Copp is expecting that to get addressed pretty quickly, it’s still not clear how Cheveldayoff will put together his protected list for next month’s expansion draft to stock the Seattle Kracken. Copp “could” be a candidate to be left unprotected. So could defenceman Dylan DeMelo, who says he really hasn’t been giving a lot of thought to that.
But he was willing to reveal it was a low-grade strain/pulled groin that knocked him out of the Montreal series on his first shift of game one when he locked skates with Habs forward Brendan Gallagher.
“It sucked for sure, I was personally crushed,” DeMelo said. “I was hoping Game 6 or Game 7 there’d be a chance to come back — and that would have been pushing it, to be honest, because I think it’s a minimum two- to three-week injury.”
Ehlers also let the media in on some of the ailments that caused him to miss the final nine games of the regular season plus the first two games against Edmonton before he returned to score twice in Game 3, including the overtime winner, when the Jets rallied from a 4-1 deficit with about eight minutes to go.
“It was a shoulder injury and a first rib injury,” Ehlers said before checking with Copp to determine if he’d already given out too much information.
Once assured he was OK in spilling the beans, the Dashing Dane provided more details.
“It was a posterior labral tear in my shoulder that I’ve had for a while. That’s nothing new but it has gotten a little bit worse. And then I got a first rib cartilage fracture — but I felt good. It just took a little longer than expected.”
Maurice and Cheveldayoff are expected to hold their final media availability of the season later this week.