Through the first 18 games of the season, Blake Wheeler was in a rut that had him as the most maligned of all Winnipeg Jets forwards.
Expected to be one of the club’s top offensive players, the big 6’5 winger endured a tumultuous start through the season’s first month.
In 18 games to start the year, Wheeler bounced around from line to line which included a demotion to the fourth line for several games. In those 18 games he was unable to score a goal and picked up just seven assists along with carrying an even plus/minus rating. Up until November 17, the game in which he scored his first goal of the year in a 4-1 win over the then first place Washington Capitals, Wheeler was becoming somewhat of a whipping boy for Jets fans.
Since scoring that long awaited first goal in a Winnipeg uniform, the Robbinsdale, Minnesota native has, along with linemate Evander Kane, been the team’s best and most consistent offensive player. The trio of Wheeler, Kane and Bryan Little has become the Jets top line, and with the speed that all three players possess, it has become one of the more dangerous lines in the entire league.
A first-round pick of the Phoenix Coyotes in 2004, Wheeler never played a game with them and signed a deal with the Boston Bruins. In his rookie year with the B’s in 2008-2009, his performance had the making of a future NHL star. In what was his finest season to date, Wheeler scored 21 goals, totalled 45 points and finished second in the league with an outstanding +35 rating.
Unable to live up to the lofty expectations that his fine rookie season had created, Wheeler often found himself in Claude Julien’s doghouse and was dealt to the Atlanta Thrashers for the final 23 games last year. He played well for the Thrashers and put himself in a position for a scoring-line role with Winnipeg.
A player with an imposing physical stature and undeniable offensive skill, the 25-year-old doesn’t always appear to be playing with the fire that many would like to see from someone with his size and ability, and that is what often drew the ire of the fans early in the year when he was not performing. A laid back personality by trait, Wheeler has begun to change that perception by playing with the passion and speed that many observers didn’t know existed. At 6’5 and 215 pounds, Wheeler has demonstrated an impressive skating ability that may very well be rivalled only by Evgeni Malkin in terms of such a big body possessing top-end speed.
With eight goals and 16 assists in the last 23 games, Wheeler has gone from a player whom head coach Claude Noel couldn’t find a way to get going no matter what he tried early in the year, to a player he now counts on to be a major catalyst up front each and every game.
Now tied for the team lead with 31 points, Wheeler had a six-game point streak come to an end in a loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs but quickly got back on track when he scored the game-tying goal in Winnipeg’s 2-1 OT victory over Buffalo this past Saturday night.
While the club will certainly continue to need contributions up and down the lineup, the resurgence of Blake Wheeler has been a major reason that the Jets have become legitimate playoff contenders in the Eastern Conference and will even more certain need him to maintain his high level of play if they hope to keep it that way.