Jets Will Need to Get Creative with Wheeler’s Injury

When one man goes down, another has to step up. That is the mantra of the professional sports world and one that the Winnipeg Jets need to adopt. The Jets don’t have a right-winger. They have already lost the services of Nikolaj Ehlers (sports hernia) and Mason Appleton (wrist) and now find themselves without Blake Wheeler.

Wheeler’s Injury Comes at a Bad Time

The veteran and team leader is having a terrific season but underwent groin surgery on Dec. 16. He’ll be out for at least a month and joins a growing list of wounded Jets as the team approaches a nasty stretch of games.

Blake Wheeler Winnipeg Jets
Blake Wheeler will be out of the lineup for at least four weeks. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

The injury puts the Jets in a precarious position as they don’t have a true right-wing forward to slot into the top lines. Ehlers and Appleton are healing from their surgery, and neither is close to returning to play.

Related: Jets Must Employ “Next-Man-Up” Mentality Through Injury Adversity

Latest News & Highlights

Wheeler suffered the injury on a shot from Josh Morrissey in the second period of their 2-1 overtime win over the Nashville Predators on Dec. 15. He exited the game in the second period, then returned for the third and overtime. He had surgery the following day and did not accompany the team the next day on their road trip to Vancouver and Seattle.

The Jets play five games in the next 10 nights against some of the NHL’s hardest hitters. Having their top three right-wingers out of action will provide a real test of resiliency for this squad.

The Jets Will Have to Fill the Void Internally

The Jets’ offensive depth is an issue. They do not possess a wealth of NHL-ready forwards but will have to rely on what they have for the time being. The problem is the NHL has a roster freeze in place from Dec. 19 – 27; the freeze is a proviso of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement that limits the movement of players around the Christmas holiday.

Simply put, it prevents any players on NHL active rosters or injured reserve from being traded, waived or loaned from midnight (local time) on Dec. 19 until midnight (local time) on Dec. 27. The Jets are going to have to deal with the complete absence of their right side with a “next man up” attitude at least until the 27th.

“The whole right side has changed from what we projected. Listen, we’re the Winnipeg Jets. We look for solutions, we don’t look for excuses. We’ve had a lot of injuries all year, and we’re going to continue to have them, and we’re going to continue to play with the next man up and find solutions. Absolutely no excuses.

– Winnipeg Jets’ Head Coach Rick Bowness, pregame press conference ,17/12/2022

It will be interesting to see what the team does after the roster freeze, but until then, they will have to depend on what they have.

The Jets Need These Players to Maintain Their Position

The players that will hold this team together are the ones who don’t make the headlines and don’t get paid hefty salaries. They are the same kinds of players who were underused by the former coaching staff but have played a big part in this season’s success. Fourth-liners like Sam Gagner, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby and Jansen Harkins will have to get more involved in scoring in their promoted roles. Karson Kuhlman was recently picked up off waivers and was inserted directly into the lineup. Kevin Stenlund, who was recently recalled from the Manitoba Moose, has already scored his first goal in a Jets uniform.

Sam Gagner Winnipeg Jets
Sam Gagner, Winnipeg Jets (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

In the three games since Wheeler’s departure, the above group has fulfilled its role, helping the Jets to a 2-1 record. The unfortunate fact is they have played the Vancouver Canucks, the Seattle Kraken and the Ottawa Senators, none of whom are in a playoff position.

Related: 3 Jets Who Have Stepped Up Amidst Injuries

The rubber meets the proverbial road this week when they travel to take on the Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals on Dec. 22 and 23, respectively. That’s followed by a post-Christmas home game versus division rival Minnesota Wild. The Bruins have the best record in the NHL, and the Wild are winners of their last five games and are now only five points behind the Jets in the Central Division.

With a 20-10-1 record, the Jets are one point behind the Dallas Stars for first place with a game in hand. These three games will be crucial, but there is more trouble ahead. The Jets play the Canucks again on Dec. 29, followed by the Edmonton Oilers on New Year’s Eve. This stretch of five games in 10 days is crucial if they want to maintain their spot in the standings.

Anyone paying attention to the Jets this season knows that Bowness will not hesitate to remove a player and insert another in search of a combination that works. He has been consistent in his philosophy when players work hard and play well they will remain in the lineup. Between his creativity and the ample selection of players to insert and juggle, it will be interesting to see how the team fares at this critical point in the season. An anxious time for the Jets, made even worse by the absence of all three of their top right-wingers to unfortunate and lengthy injuries.

Sign up for our regular 'Jets Newsletter' for all the latest.