While doing the play-by-play of the Canada-Russia challenge for TSN I got a chance to watch and chat with a couple of Winnipeg Jet prospects, one a little better known than the other. The two were Mark Scheifele, no longer a stranger to Jets fans, the other was Luke Sutter, a youngster with a last name very well known to all hockey fans.
Two things different about Scheifele. To see him off the ice you immediately see that he has filled out. Now over 6'1" and over 190 lbs he looks more like a pro than a junior. Which will he be next season? We will hopefully know in the next two months. Some of that rests with Scheifele, some rests with the Jets, some rests with the negotiations between the owners and players as they attempt to hammer out a new CBA in time to start main training camps on schedule. The Jets and several other teams have already cancelled rookie camps. Being of junior age, Scheifele either plays with the Jets or returns to Barrie of the OHL. That despite finishing last season in the AHL with the St. John's IceCaps.
On the ice there is an edge to Scheifele's game. Something that he is adding to his skill set. That will not be the main asset he brings to the NHL, but with Team Canada head coach Steve Spott wanting an aggressive style from his troops, as a returning player to the team, Scheifele added that element to his game. In international competition that sometimes comes with a price. He was handed a kneeing major and game misconduct in Game 2 of the series in Yaroslavl, on a play where he was simply finishing his check. In the four game series he was physical, at times bordering on chippy, did some trash talking, all while saving his best game for when Canada needed him most, the final night of series, Game 4 in Halifax.
Just a quick recap, Canada needed a regulation win to force overtime to decide a series winner. Coach Spott demanded more from his top players in that final game, Scheifele had three assists in a 4-2 win. "With all the travel, it was a bit of a new challenge, but a fun time that not many get to do," commented Scheifele after a morning skate. With a lot of his focus on his goal of making the Jets roster and staying in the NHL, was keeping his mind on the four-game series difficult? "You separate the two, just work on your game, work to get better and develop. The next step is a big one to make." For Hockey Canada, Scheifele is in a group of players that played in the challenge, but may not be available come December because they are in the NHL and may or may not get released by their NHL teams to play in the World Junior Championship in Ufa, Russia.
As for the physical play we saw from Scheifele, he says there are a number of things that played into it. "The rivalry between Canada and Russia brings that out in a player, but being bigger and stronger I feel more comfortable with my body and feel I can play that way. I always had that in me, getting under people's skin, but not in a dirty way. I started that way in Russia and carried it through the series. I'm not a cruncher but will use my body to finish my checks. I have always been competitive."
"We all stepped up in the final game," continued Scheifele. "The character of our team showed."
"With Mark we are seeing the emergence of a top six forward in the NHL," said Coach Spott. "We wanted Mark to be more physical and compete, and he answered both. That was an area of concern." In the final game Spott used his leaders in all situations. "Mark played five-on-five, power play and in the final used him and our best players on the penalty kill as well. The coaching staff was comfortable using Mark to kill."
Let's go back a year. Last summer for Scheifele included international tournaments, the draft, and world junior tryouts. That was followed by Jets rookie camp, main camp, five NHL pre-season games (eight points), seven NHL games (first NHL goal), 47 OHL games (23-40-63), six games at the World Junior championship (3-3-6), 13 OHL playoff games (5-7-12), and 10 AHL playoff games. Then some down time. He took two weeks off " to rest". "With the extra weight I put on (15 lbs) I feel stronger, more powerful. Something I will need against bigger players."
For Luke Sutter the four-game challenge was part of a busy summer and what could be a big year. He was drafted by the Jets, attended the prospect camp, joined Team Canada for the series, will attend Jets rookie camp, head back to his CHL team, the Saskatoon Blades, hopefully get to perform for his country in Ufa and then get ready as Saskatoon hosts the Memorial Cup with the Blades in as the host team, but wanting to make some noise and go in as the WHL Champion instead. The Jets also have a pre-season game scheduled for Saskatoon. "To be part of this international challenge is a real eye opener. You get to meet and know other players, learn more about yourself, get to experience the travel and deal with the highs and lows."
Unlike Scheifele, Luke's game is all about playing with an edge (28-31-59 with 165 PIM). After all, he is a Sutter and his father (Rich), five of his uncles and four of his cousins who have played or been drafted into the NHL, all have that in their game. The concern for Luke is to play the way he has to play, but not to cross the line that results in penalties. Every pre-game speech by Coach Spott dealt with discipline and how penalties can be the difference between a gold medal and a silver or bronze. Coaches have to be able to trust their players. Yet at 6'1" and over 200 lbs, that size and the way he plays can be intimidating to the opposition. The Blades like that part of his game, and so do the Jets.
So now like everyone else, the two players will continue working out, will keep watching TSN for the latest updates on the CBA negotiations and with one "Challenge" in the books with victory accomplished, be ready for the next challenge.
Whatever that challenge might be.