The Winnipeg Jets moved a bit closer to answering one of the team's big questions during the preseason – what to do with Mark Scheifele.
The 18-year-old forward has confounded team management since the Jets drafted him in the first round, seventh overall, last summer from the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League. First he showed up to training camp in better shape than some on the team expected. Then he scored four goals and added four assists during the club's five exhibition games. As a result, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and head coach Claude Noel have been fending off questions for days about Scheifele's future, especially since he had yet to sign a contract.
Things changed Monday when the Jets announced they had finally signed Scheifele to an entry-level deal that stretches three years. The contract is reportedly worth about $1.6-million (all currency U.S.) annually and includes $925,000 in salary and $700,000 in bonus, in line with other top rookies. While the contract brought smiles to both Scheifele and Cheveldayoff, it did not clear up the teenager's future with the Jets.
Cheveldayoff remained cautious, refusing to even rate Scheifele's chances of sticking with the team for the season. "The National Hockey League is a very tough league to develop in," Cheveldayoff told reporters after a practice. "He made the opening-night roster. But we are really, seriously, looking at this day to day, game to game."
The GM put his dilemma bluntly. If Scheifele stays with the team beyond nine games, his three-year contract kicks in. That means he would be eligible for free agency in 2014 at the still young age of 21. If he goes back to his OHL club, his contract won't kick in until he rejoins the Jets next year. That would push his free agency out another year. His salary would also be sharply reduced, although compensation is not a huge issue since the Jets' payroll is still among the lowest in the league at roughly $53-million.
Sending him back would give Scheifele a year to mature physically. But keeping him on the roster would undoubtedly boost his confidence and add a potential offensive threat to a team that in the past has had trouble scoring. It's clear Scheifele has earned the other players' respect. When Noel announced in the dressing room that the club had signed him, the players let out a loud cheer.
"It was unreal," Scheifele said of the cheer and signing the contract. Smiling broadly, Scheifele started speaking with reporters almost as if staying with the team might be a certainty. He mused about buying gifts for his family, talked about what number he'd like to wear and discussed where he might live in the city. But he soon reverted to Cheveldayoff's more uncertain line, saying the contract was only another chance to prove himself. "I look at it as a tryout," he said, trying hard to look serious. "I've just got to keep on pushing through. I've just got to work my hardest."
The smile, the gifts and the trending on Twitter, which he did Monday, will be hard to give up if he heads back to Barrie.