Mark Scheifele: A Jet Awaiting Takeoff (in-depth analysis)
Scheifele was drafted seventh overall in the 2011 and is currently in the midst of his third full season with Winnipeg Jets. He is currently having his best season to date having already put up a career high in goals despite having only played 61 games. Even though he is also well on his way to a career high in points it is not that impressive as he will still likely finish with less than 50 points this season. The situation in Winnipeg is changing though and recently with the injury to Bryan Little Scheifele has shown that there is reason to believe that he can be a lot more if given the opportunity. The injury to Little is not career ending so next year could be return to the status quo so this column will look at how much of Scheifele’s success without Little in the lineup is a sign of big things to come next year and how much a return to the status quo can be expected.
The status quo in Winnipeg for Scheifele is playing second fiddle behind Bryan Little. When Little is healthy that means 17 minutes per game for Scheifele including two and a half minutes on the power play. Two and a half minutes per game would not be that bad except that those minutes are exclusively with the second unit meaning that the amount of production that Scheifele gets out of his power play time is severely reduced. The combination of the lower overall minutes per game and the second-rate power play is a significant drag on his value. This undercuts Scheifele’s elite production rate at even strength, which is tenth overall in the NHL this year, eighth amongst players who have played more than 50 games. Even his production at even strength before Little’s injury was top 50 in the league, which would place him second the Jets. Scheifele has achieved this high level of even strength production despite getting worse zone starts than the Little line. Thus despite having a budding defensive specialist in Adam Lowry and a high-end two-way center in Bryan Little, Scheifele still does not get a break in usage. As such he gets none of the benefits that others second lines in a similar situation get, namely a more offense-centric usage (see Patrick Kane and Mike Ribeiro). Lest that comparison to Kane and Ribeiro seem patently ridiculous the Jets score at a higher rate at even strength with Scheifele on the ice than either the Hawks with Kane or the Predators with Ribeiro on the ice. That is not to say that he is in the same tier of player as Kane but rather that this usage seems like a misusage of one of the better offensive talents on the Jets.
Being trapped behind Little does not look to be a temporary situation as Little is signed for two more years with a cap hit over four million dollars. There might be more of an impetus to increase Scheifele’s ice time after he gets a raise this off-season as a restricted free agent. The bigger factor for increased overall production for Scheifele is more likely to be the departure of Andrew Ladd. The departure of Ladd will do nothing to increase Scheifele’s even strength minutes but it will create an opening on the first unit of the power play. A permanent spot on the top power play would be a big boon to Scheifele’s overall production. Perreault, Wheeler, Byfuglien and Little, the four mainstays on the Jets top power play unit, each average more than four points per 60 minutes on the power play. Perreault, Wheeler and Byfuglien each have twice the points that Scheifele has even though they have only played 60 more minutes on the power play. That amounts to eight more points on the season for Scheifele or just less than a 20% bump to his points totals to date this season. Barring a significant shift in the way Paul Maurice uses Little and Scheifele the open spot on the power play could be the best hope for Scheifele to hit the magical fourth year break out next season.
A Little Injury
The injury to Bryan Little provided Scheifele with a major opportunity to step up and show that he can play an expanded role for the Jets, assuming being one of the top 50 producers at even strength had not already accomplished that. The effects have been significant for Scheifele in terms of ice time, usage and production. In terms of ice time Scheifele has averaged over 20 minutes per game in the 13 games that Little has missed. That is three minute per game bump overall and includes nearly a minute of extra power play time per game. It is also important to note that the power play time Scheifele is now receiving is on the first unit, meaning that he is not only getting more minutes but that all the minutes are much more valuable. The problem in this case is that he has not derived much production from those minutes as the power play as a whole has struggled in the absence of Little and Ladd. While Scheifele has failed to take advantage of the better power play time the increased minutes have also come with some better usage. He went from starting 37% of his shifts overall in the offensive zone when Little was healthy to 43% after Little’s injury. The effect has been similar at even strength as well, meaning that the absence of Little has thrust Scheifele into a more offensive role. That is significant as the second line now features Mathieu Perreault, Alex Burmistrov and Marko Dano, and also gets better zone starts than Scheifele received when Little was healthy.
With Scheifele clearly having benefitted from Little’s injury in minutes and usage there should be an increase in his production and shot rates. On an individual level both have seen fairly large increases. His shot rate has gone from two and a half per game to just under three and a third shots per game. That shot rate would translate to over 260 shots over a full season or 60 more shots than his shot rate when his Little was healthy. With Scheifele traditionally being a 11% shooter that puts him at close to a 30 goal scorer as opposed the 20 goal scorer his numbers suggest before the Little injury. The increase in Scheifele’s individual shot rate has not translated into an increase in the team’s overall shot rate with him on the ice, it has actually stayed relatively constant. Somewhat disturbing, although largely irrelevant for fantasy hockey, is that the Jets have given up more shots against with Scheifele on the ice since the Little injury. The only reason that would affect his fantasy value is that it could result in a lower plus/minus, especially with the Jets questionable goaltending.
Where Scheifele has seen the biggest jump is in his production, it went from 2.15 points per 60 minutes before the Little injury to 3.77 in the 13 games since then. The increase in Scheifele’s individual shot rate alone does not explain the almost doubling in Scheifele’s already very good production rate. The bump in his individual shot rate does explain some of the increase but to further explain it some luck factors need to be examined. First, there has not been a huge increase in the number of secondary assists that Scheifele has recorded since Februrary 20th. In fact he has only two secondary assists of his 17 points in that time period. That means that Scheifele is directly involved in pushing the Jets offense, which bodes well fore this usage sticking to some extent after Little’s return. It is concerning though that Scheifele has relied on his shooting percentage doubling since Little’s injury, which not surprisingly has also seen his on-ice shooting percentage rise significantly as well. Given that Scheifele has 10 goals since Little got injured that shocking rise in his shooting percentage it can be assumed that at least five of his 17 points are luck based. Even after subtracting those five points from this 13 game run he would still be averaging nearly a point per game. That translates to a 2.77 points per 60 minutes which would give a top 20 points per 60 minutes overall, second at even strength, for the season. From the bump in production over the 13 games that Little has been out it is safe to say that Scheifele has stepped up his game.
Moving forward there are a few possible scenarios for Mark Scheifele next season with a healthy Bryan Little. The worst case scenario is a continuation of the status quo where Scheifele sees none of the benefits of playing behind a two-way center and in front of a defensive specialist. It is also entirely possible that he does not get the bump up to the top power play unit as there other skilled options up front as well as along the blue line. The dearth of offensive minded depth centers there could be enough of a reason to keep Scheifele as the centerpiece of the second unit, It bodes well, however, that in the game between Ladd’s trade and Little’s injury Scheifele got bumped up to the top power play unit while Perreault got bumped down to the second unit. Thus it seems more likely that Scheifele will at least get a chance to make his mark on the top power play unit. The best case scenario would be top unit power play time as well as offensive-centric usage along the lines of what of the aforementioned Kane and RIbeiro see in similar situations. Maurice has not shown the inclination to use Scheifele in such a manner, although he has been used in a more offensive role this season. That being said Maurice has historically used Little in an even more offensive role than he has been this season. That leaves something in between for Scheifele, and probably in the neighbourhood of 50 points. Even though Scheifele has shown in Little’s absence that he is capable and carrying the load as a top center it does not look likely that he will get the opportunity in the near future. The end result is that Scheifele will be hard-pressed to breakout but will almost certainly be one of the best second-line centers in the league. He will remain in that role until there is a changing of the guard, or of strategy, in Winnipeg. Back to the gate to wait another year.