Jets’ Wheeler Has Much to Prove in 2022-23

Blake Wheeler will be traded. Blake Wheeler will get traded before the entry draft. The Jets need to move on Wheeler before free agency. It just didn’t happen.

There have been so many storylines with so much speculation… yet he is still the captain of the Winnipeg Jets. And at the end of the 2022-23 season, there’s a good chance he will still be the captain. He has plenty more game left in the tank, and with a new coaching staff, look for him to lead the Jets back into the playoffs and prove his naysayers wrong.

Blake Wheeler Winnipeg Jets
Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff has not built his career based on the blockbuster deal. So rest assured that until he’s certain he has a trade locked down that will immediately upgrade the Jets, he’s not likely to pull the trigger on any offer involving the 36-year-old winger.

“I do think the changes that are made on the coaching side (with Rick Bowness as head coach), you’re going to see a different style of play. Sometimes you got to be careful about thinking about what you don’t have as opposed to what you have and go from there”

– Kevin Cheveldayoff (from ‘Jets dormant as free agency period opens in NHL,’ Winnipeg Sun, 13/07/2022)

There has been a lot written in speculation of a Wheeler deal this summer for a variety of different reasons. His regression of speed is an issue for some. His salary cap hit of $8.25 million is a burden to the team. His leadership skills with the press and in the locker room have been questioned. But let me ask you this, are those reasons you would want to trade for Wheeler if you were a GM for one of the other 31 NHL teams? There are not a lot of solid selling points in that pitch. There are, however, the reasons why the Jets should not trade away their most tenured player.

Wheeler Had a Better Year Than Most Realize

Prior to the 2021-22 season, Wheeler had scored 807 points in 981 NHL games, that’s a rate of .822 points per game (P/G). In other words, in every 10 games he played, he tallied 8 points. Last season, he amassed 60 points in 65 games. That translates to .923 P/G or nine points in every 10 games. His production went up last season.

Blake Wheeler Winnipeg Jets Carey Price Montreal Canadiens
Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets and Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens (Photo by Jason Halstead/Getty Images)

Last year, he contracted COVID in October and had a miserable start to the season upon his return. Then he missed six weeks in December and January due to a knee injury. By the time he returned, the Jets were chasing a playoff spot and continued to do so for the remainder of the season. In the face of that adversity, he still produced offense at a rate higher than his career average. And he did so while the Jets and their coaching staff were unable to put any puzzle pieces to their lost season together. He played so well in February and March that he was arguably the best player on the club.

Related: Jets’ Wheeler Could Be Playing Himself Into a Trade

In his final 35 games of the season, after fully recovering from injury and in game shape, he put up 39 points. He scored 15 goals and added 24 assists in that time frame, with 13 of those goals being scored at even strength and not on the power play. Those are solid numbers. Take into account that his production came at a time of high stress and uncertainty as the Jets were desperately chasing postseason play, and his value to the team becomes more obvious.

Is his contract too rich? His contract is high, but he’s definitely not overpriced compared to other NHL wingers with similar numbers. Nikita Kucherov, who also missed significant time last season, scored 19 goals in his final 35 games and was paid $9.5 million. Likewise, Mitch Marner of the Maple Leafs scored 18 goals in that same number of games at the end of the season and earned $10.9 million. The biggest difference is they both happened to play for offensive juggernauts that were one-two in NHL scoring last season. Wheeler’s contract is the price teams are required to pay for that offense he produced.

Wheeler Has Been the Target of Trade Talks

From the March 21 trade deadline through the entirety of summer, there has been a buzz around Winnipeg that Wheeler may be on the move. The Jets have been shopping him around with some interesting three-team scenarios floating about in cyberspace. Yet, the Jets have been eerily quiet this offseason when many thought they’d be busy.

Heading into training camp, Cheveldayoff has made it known he believes in the roster he has built. He is convinced that a coaching change alone will help to right the ship to virtually the same lineup that stepped on the ice last season. In an article written by Sportsnet’s Ken Wiebe, he was quoted as saying, “That’s pretty…it’s interesting. Last year, we’re sitting here at this time, and we made the trades for the two defencemen, and everyone is already engraving the names on the Stanley Cup.”

When asked if he likes his current roster he replied, “Yeah, I am.”

Kevin Cheveldayoff Winnipeg Jets
Kevin Cheveldayoff, general manager of the Winnipeg Jets (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

His job is to create a roster that goes into the fall better than the one that left in the spring. To date, it’s hard to see that he’s done that. But if he truly believes he has, it makes me think that unless he gets an unbelievable offer, you’ll see Wheeler in Jets uniform for the majority of this season, if not its entirety.

There has been much written about Wheeler and trade possibilities, but the short version is this. He has a tough contract to move and can still score at nearly a point-per-game pace. Receiving a player of equal value or better in return for less money will be a struggle. Especially since the Jets continue to make it clear they are not interested in rebuilding but are eager to win now, which insinuates they are not looking for draft picks but players instead. This roster cannot take another loss to the forward group and isn’t built to win without him or someone who can match his output in return.

Wheeler Is a Proud Captain Who Will Produce

As much as his captaincy and leadership were questioned last year, and they were, it will be interesting to see how the change in coaching staff will affect Wheeler and his ability to lead. Connor Hrabchak, a colleague with The Hockey Writers, prognosticates the Jets will finish third in the Central Division this season. For that to happen, Wheeler will have to be counted on to not only produce on the ice but be an effective liaison to head coach Rick Bowness. A job he takes pride in.

Blake Wheeler Winnipeg Jets
Blake Wheeler, Winnipeg Jets (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

I think you’ll see Wheeler return this year with something to prove in that regard. He shouldered the blame for the team’s poor showing last year, as you would expect from a captain who cares. I do think change is what this team needs, but I don’t think a change in the captaincy is the answer.

Last year, Wheeler changed linemates and was moved from the Wheeler, Mark Scheifele duo that was the signature of Paul Maurice, and he thrived. I think he is ready to accept a lesser role on the team in terms of ice-time, which will indirectly benefit his individual game. Yes, he’s lost half a step with age, but he has shown he is still capable of putting numbers on the board. This will be his biggest test as captain: accepting a different role from the one he used to. Change is coming with the new staff coaching, and I believe he will change with it.

One could argue Wheeler was underappreciated last season. He scored above his norm, and he dealt with criticism on how he handled the dressing room. Yet, he maintained a sense of pride while taking the blame for the team’s demise. This season, a healthy Wheeler could notch 70-80 points, and like my colleague Mr. Hrabchak, I also feel the Jets are bound for the playoffs this season.

Wheeler has something to prove. Prove the media and any fans who doubt him they are wrong, prove to his new coaches he’s the right man to lead this team, and prove to his GM that he made the right move in not trading him.

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