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Junior hockey helped Mark Scheifele and should help Jonathan Drouin too

Mark Scheifele made the Winnipeg Jets out of camp and scored a goal in his first game this season. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Mark Scheifele made the Winnipeg Jets out of camp and scored a goal in his first game this season. (Photo by Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

I admit, I’ve been impatient with the Winnipeg Jets when it comes to Mark Scheifele. After making him the surprise of the 2011 draft when they tabbed him seventh overall (much higher than expected), the Jets gave the youngster a seven-game tryout before sending him back to junior with the Ontario League’s Barrie Colts. Once the lockout ended, he got in four more games before being sent back to the Colts, where he dominated the OHL and destroyed the competition in the post-season with 41 points in 21 games. Were it not for a shoulder injury that kept him out of Game 7 of the league championship, it may have been Barrie at the Memorial Cup instead of London. The kid was past ready, right? Why didn’t they put him in a top-six role on a team with no high-end centers and let him soar earlier?

Well, they’ve done it now and the initial results were promising. Scheifele opened the 2013-14 campaign between wingers Evander Kane and Devin Setoguchi and though the line didn’t connect on any goals, Scheifele was also on the top power play unit and nailed his first tally of the season with the man advantage.

Could Scheifele have been a regular last year? It’s all conjecture now, but in talking with him over the summer, he cited the No. 1 concern for youngsters as the area he needed to improve on before taking that next step: getting stronger.

“That’s what I focused all my time on,” Scheifele said. “Being in the gym, working hard in the gym, taking care of my body and eating the right things.”

When Scheifele was drafted, he came in at 6-foot-2 and 184 pounds. This year he’s listed at 192 pounds and though that may not seem like a big jump, he’s noticeably thicker in person. Though the agreement between the NHL and CHL kept Scheifele in junior instead of the American League, he did get in 10 playoff games with St. John’s in 2011-12, once Barrie’s season was finished. Even that small window gave the teen a peek at what was to come.

“Playing pro obviously helps you a lot,” he said. “You’re playing against men, not kids your own age. That helps build towards the NHL.”

A lot of people were shocked when Tampa Bay sent third overall pick Jonathan Drouin back to the Quebec League last week. Why not give him nine games with the Bolts before sending him back, as is often the standard? As nice as it would have been for the gifted winger to make that debut, GM Steve Yzerman wanted him to be an impact player when he’s ready, not a kid who sees spot duty and sits on the bench watching. Back in Halifax, Drouin can dominate and round out his game. His vision and playmaking are superb, but NHL checkers are going to close in on him much quicker, so he can’t rely on his innate skills.

Some pundits thought Drouin was a better prospect than Halifax teammate Nathan MacKinnon, who went first overall to Colorado and will be on the Avs roster for opening night. But MacKinnon was always regarded more highly by NHL team scouts and execs, because he played a more “pro-style game.” Indeed, the fact Canada used him in a checking role at the world juniors may have been shortsighted, but the team brass knew he could do it, just as the Avs believe he can excel even in a bottom six role. According to the Denver Post, MacKinnon was expected to start the year on the third line between Jamie McGinn and P.A. Parenteau.

That’s a pretty good combination – McGinn and Parenteau helped Matt Duchene to his best season yet last year and MacKinnon has similar explosiveness up the middle. And who says your third line has to be straight-up checkers? If you can roll more offense, I say go for it.

Will Drouin out-point MacKinnon by the end of their careers? That’s a bet the former junior linemates can wager on themselves. But it goes without saying their teams both made the right decisions in placing them this season.

And I have to admit, Winnipeg probably did the same with Scheifele after all.

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