2011 prospects: Center Mark Scheifele sees OHL as best path to NHL

By Jason Menard

Mark Scheifele had verbally committed to Cornell University and was strongly leaning towards playing in the NCAA this season, but an off-season trade gave him pause to reconsider — and after consulting with a few trusted advisors, he decided to turn down Cornell and join the Barrie Colts of the OHL.

“I just kind of started to go over the pros and cons of the OHL versus the NCAA and just found out that the OHL would be my best route and best option for getting to the NHL,” Scheifele said. “I spoke to my family, agent, and I got a bunch of information from people that I knew and people that had gone to the NHL through the OHL.”

Helping to sway the decision was a Sept. 8, 2010 trade from the Saginaw Spirit, who selected he Kitchener-born center in the seventh round of the seventh round of the 2009 OHL priority draft, to the Colts in return for veteran goaltender Mavric Parks. The Spirit also received Barrie’s second-round pick in the 2013 OHL draft.

“I made the decision after the trade,” Scheifele said. “Before [the trade] my mind was always set on going to the NCAA, but then after [the trade] happened, I was still kind of committed to going to Cornell and then, I don’t know, doors started to open up and I began to realize what kind of opportunity I had here in Barrie.”

And that opportunity included being coached by former NHLer Dale Hawerchuk, who is the Colts’ head coach and director of hockey operations. Hawerchuk explained that his club was enamored with the young forward’s skill set and believed he could step onto the roster and play a key role right away.

“I think he was talking with [Cornell], but this happens with a lot of kids. Kids have these options and when you have the opportunity to talk with these kids, then you get a chance to see what they’re thinking,” Hawerchuk said. “We really didn’t talk to him before the trade, but we felt that he was a young kid and I gave him the opportunity to think about playing junior hockey because I thought really highly of him, and I thought he’d be an impact guy right away.”

Hawerchuk has been proven right in that assessment. In 19 games so far, Scheifele has scored six goals and added 14 assists, good for fifth overall in OHL rookie scoring. His 20 points is also second on his club, one point behind team leader Colin Behenna. Scheifele has been particularly impressive with the extra man, where he’s played a key role in the club’s twelfth-ranked power play, chipping in nine points.

“I was kind of used to [the power play time] last year, but after the first couple of games I was getting a decent amount of ice time and it was getting me up to the pace,” Scheifele said. “It really got me up to speed and the strength — well, I just kind of adapted and I’m continuing to work my hardest to get better and better.”

Hawerchuk added that a couple of somewhat surprising absences from the Colts’ projected lineup has afforded Scheifele a greater opportunity than expected.

“You look at our hockey club — if we had Kyle Clifford [currently playing with the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings] and Alexander Burmistrov [who also stuck in the NHL with the Atlanta Thrashers] and we’d be talking about a completely different team and maybe [Scheifele] would be playing a secondary role on our second line or third line — who knows?” Hawerchuk said. “But that’s a part of junior hockey. We weren’t sure what was going to happen with those guys. We thought that there was a chance that they could be back, but we also thought that they could make it. So that changed the dynamics of our team a little bit. It’s put guys into positions that they might not have had otherwise. It’s a good thing for them and it’s up to them to take advantage of it.”

Hawerchuk explained that Scheifele’s mental composure and commitment to improving are two factors that have allowed him to embrace the opportunity given to him, and run with it.

“He gets pressure every night that he’s out there because a lot of times he’s out there playing against number-one lines and he’s got to be on his toes. But he loves that challenge,” he said. “You see it in him as a player. It’s not an easy thing to do — you’re in your first year as a player in this league and all of the sudden you’re asked to play a top-line role, but so far so good.

“He’s accepted it and he’s the kind of guy that just gravitates to that kind of pressure.”

Factor in that this is Scheifele’s draft-eligible year and one would expect that there’s a tremendous weight on his young shoulders, but the 6’3, 175-pound forward said that it’s a motivation.

“I like a bit of pressure — it keeps you going and it keeps you wanting to be the best that you can be. It motivates you to work hard, so I like it,” he said, adding that he tries to block out the thought that scouts are watching him each game. “I just try not to think about it that much, that people are watching. I just think about how I have to play my game, how I have to work my hardest, and I’ve got to help my team out as much as possible and the best things will come about at the end.”

Scheifele averaged over a point-per-game last season with the Kitchener Dutchmen Junior-B squad, scoring 18 goals en route to 55 points in 51 games. He said he’s noticed a significant jump in the caliber of play in the OHL.

“It’s a huge difference — the speed’s so much faster and the strength of players is too,” he said. “There are no weak spots on these teams and every player can play, and play their positions really well, so you just have to worry about your game.

“You can’t worry about what anyone else is doing — you just have to stick to what you do best and it will come.”

And yet, Scheifele is focusing on repeating his junior-B performance offensively, explaining that it’s a goal he’s set for himself this season.

“I want to always play my best every game and never take a game off. On the numerical side, in my mind one of my goals is to have a point a game,” he said. “I’m really going to strive to do that and be up there in rookie scoring, so I’m always going to strive to get more goals. I make goals every month and I set some goals at the beginning of the year.”

But don’t think that Scheifele wants to be a force only in one end of the rink. He said he’s committed to rounding out his game and, although he’s drawn some comparisons to a young Joe Thornton thanks to his size and his soft touch, he prefers to look to the Motor City for inspiration.

“I like Joe Thornton’s playmaking ability, but I really model my game after [Pavel] Datsyuk, just because of the way he plays defense and the way he is on offense — always going towards the puck and always around the puck,” he explained. “He’s such a well-rounded player.”

Scheifele also said he appreciates the opportunity to be coached by someone who enjoyed a long and storied NHL career — and he’s taking the opportunity to pick his coach’s brain about what it takes to make the jump to the next level.

“Yeah, I’ve talked to him a couple of times about it and he’s explained some things to me,” Scheifele said. “It’s great to have him because he knows his stuff and he’s really got a lot of great knowledge about it.”

His coach said he feels his young charge will improve because he has the right attitude and work ethic to do so.

“The big thing that he has is that he’s a committed hockey player on and off the ice. He works hard all the time, both during the games and during practice and workouts,” he said. “ He’s a sharp kid and he wants it. A lot of times that’s the difference between the guys who make it and the guys that don’t — that want and that desire to make it.

“I think there are a lot of parts [of his game that he needs to work on]. He’s got good size, he’s got very good hands. He’s going to get bigger, he’s going to become a better skater, and he’s going to get stronger. He has all the raw materials, but most of all I like that he has the mental makeup to make the best of everything.”

Scheifele echoes those statements, adding that he’s not neglecting the little things that can slip through the cracks and sometimes go unattended during a player’s development.

“Right now I’m working on a lot of little things — my shot, my faceoffs, stopping and starting, giving and going. Just playing a game that’ll work for me and allow me to be consistent,” Scheifele said. “I also am working on developing a better, more-rounded game, because I’ve always wanted to do that. I don’t want to just be good on defense or just be good on offense, but I really want to be a more well-rounded player.”

Although the season has been less-than-stellar for the Colts to date — they enter this weekend’s action at the bottom of the OHL’s overall standings, with only four wins against 14 losses and one overtime loss. Hawerchuk said that he doesn’t feel that being on such a young team that’s going through the cyclical growing pains of the league will have a negative impact.

“As far as Scheifele goes winning and losing — obviously we’d rather be winning and you look for kids that want to be part of winners,” he said. “Just watch his game, he wants to win every time he’s out there.”

And with draft day only a few months away, Scheifele admits he has some favorite teams from when he’s growing up — including the one that currently employees his idol. But that won’t preclude him from being excited about hearing his name called by any NHL club.

“My favorite team’s Detroit,” he said. “But I also like Calgary, Ottawa…”

Then Scheifele added, laughing. “I’ll take anyone!”