Jets’ Wheeler Passes First Test

The Blake Wheeler shuffle is off to a strong start for the Winnipeg Jets. The 33-year-old has moved to second-line center for the time being with forward Bryan Little out of the lineup for the foreseeable future. Lots of people have been calling for this move as far back as last season when the Jets started to sputter in the back half of the season. Then there is the other group that thought putting Wheeler – a guy who has looked off so far this season – in a more prominent role was the worst thing you could do for the team.

Blake Wheeler - Winnipeg Jets
Blake Wheeler passed the first test at center, can he keep the momentum going? (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Those people were wrong – at least for now – Wheeler looked re-energized and played with a ton of speed and character against the Vancouver Canucks last night (Nov. 8). He registered his first power play point of the season while on a completely new power play unit – Paul Maurice made some major changes to both power plays and the players responded well. They hemmed the Canucks in their own zone for the entire two minutes of the first power play and followed that up by scoring on the next one thanks to Jack Roslovic’s beauty goal and Blake Wheeler – who started the play.

Related: Jets Weekly: Laine, Heinola, Wheeler & More

Wheeler All for the Switch

Maurice apparently texted Wheeler about his thoughts on moving to center and Wheeler simply responded, “Yes.” It shows a lot about the Jets’ captain and his want to help the team whichever way he can.

Wheeler may be in one of the worst funks we have witnessed in a really long time, but the guy is still working his butt off and I feel it is only a matter of time before that switch gets flipped back again. He seemed to take this shift to center as a fresh start and he looked like a completely different player on the ice – something all fans enjoyed seeing.

No one but Maurice and Wheeler knows exactly how long they will run with this change but it surely looked like gold for the first game. I can see things staying the way they are if these are the results it will yield. If Little were to return at some point this season, might they still keep Wheeler at second-line center?

Analytics Looked Good

Wheeler’s strong showing we saw with the naked eye is backed by analytics – he finished the game with an outstanding Corsi for percentage (CF%) of 60.71% and his line with Roslovic and Nikolaj Ehlers was a team-best 60% (CF%) at even strength.

Wheeler went 50% on his faceoffs and added two hits and two takeaways while playing 16:41 of ice time. He played 2:07 of that on the power play and Maurice gave both power play units a near-even split of time on the man advantage.

Not Wheeler’s First Kick at the Can

Wheeler switched to center back in 2017-18 when Mark Scheifele was injured for an extended period of time and he looked good then, too. He played 16 games in the middle and registered 16 points, won 45.9% of his faceoffs, and helped keep a team that was dominating that season at its peak performance even without their true number-one center in the lineup.

Blake Wheeler Mark Scheifele
Maurice finally split up Wheeler and Scheifele and it paid off for the first game. (Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports)

Not many players can switch from wing to center effectively but Wheeler clearly has that capability. Coaches love size and speed up the middle of their lineup and the 6-foot-5 captain has all of that. Maybe this was the switch he needed to get his spark back? Maybe this more prominent role people were afraid to see Wheeler take is getting his focus back?

Related: Jets | There’s Something Wrong with Blake Wheeler

Wheeler passed the first test and the Jets have strung together a solid stretch of games here – earning seven of eight possible points in their last four games. Hopefully, they can keep the ball rolling and regain that strong home-ice dominance we have seen over the last few seasons.