Jets Continue to Misuse Wheeler on the Top Line

From the Long Term Injured Reserve to the first-line right wing, without passing GO.

Winnipeg Jets’ captain Blake Wheeler was, on Saturday afternoon against the Boston Bruins, playing his first game after recovering a knee injury. On Dec. 10 against the Vancouver Canucks, he got the worst of a three-way collision between himself, teammate Nathan Beaulieu, and the Canucks’ Vasily Podkolzin in front of the Jets’ net.

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The injury was not as serious at it initially appeared, and due to nine COVID-19 and attendance-related cancellations, Wheeler only ended up missing nine games.

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Despite that, he had still been out of game action for six weeks. While he pushed himself hard in practice this week to be able to return during the current four-game road trip, it was logical to assumed he’d be eased back into the swing of things and deployed on the bottom six.

Not so. Interim head coach Dave Lowry pulled a page out of the departed Paul Maurice’s playbook and put Wheeler right back onto the top line, alongside Andrew Copp and Mark Scheifele.

Wheeler, at age 35, has struggled in the past few seasons to keep up at five-on-five against opponents’ best players. He admitted the shortened 2020-21 campaign was the hardest of his professional life as he was poor defensively and a team-worst -17.

Wheeler’s Line Highly Involved in Return

After the Jets jumped out to an early 1-0 lead and were pushing for another goal, Wheeler’s line was victimized for the game-tying marker. He was half a step slow to challenge pinching defenseman Urho Vaakanainen, and a few seconds later, the puck was in the back of the net.

Blake Wheeler Winnipeg Jets Carey Price Montreal Canadiens
Blake Wheeler’s line was involved in two first-period goals, one against and one for. (Photo by Jason Halstead/Getty Images)

Wheeler’s line produced a goal in the first as well, but he did not register a point on the play. Scheifele’s attempted cross-ice pass to Wheeler on the rush bounced fortuitously off of Andrew Copp and in.

Wheeler was also part of the Jets’ power play regime, playing his customary role on the wall. They had three straight opportunities on the man advantage in the third while trailing 3-2 — including one in the final minute-and-a-half with Connor Hellebuyck pulled to make it a six-on-four — but did not generate many good chances at all.

Wheeler’s finished with 21:39 of ice time — a season high. This included 4:32 on the power play. He registered no points, two shots, and was even.

New Regime, Same Subpar Player Deployment

Wheeler’s performance against the Bruins was fine, considering the length of time he’d been out. The bigger issues are that his continuing to get 20-plus minutes per game is showing old habits die hard, and that Maurice’s outdated ideas on player deployment remain even a month after he stepped down.

Dave Lowry talks to Maurice almost every day, the Winnipeg Free Press revealed early this month, so the break from the old bench boss isn’t exactly a clean one. Lowry has slowly differentiated himself from his predecessor in some ways — such as giving young players a bigger opportunity — but in this case, status quo seems to be god.

Jets Still Don’t Realize Wheeler Isn’t the Player He Was

To be honest, writing about how Wheeler is being misused and why he’s not a viable-top six option anymore seems like shouting into the void at this point. This author has been writing it for two seasons and it’s obvious to anyone paying even a bit of attention what should happen — Wheeler should have a lesser role at even strength and should only be put in positions where he has a chance of succeeding, such as on the power play.

Dave Lowry Winnipeg Jets
Dave Lowry stuck with the status-quo by immediately putting Blake Wheeler back on the first line. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Perhaps Dave Lowry was fooled into thinking that Wheeler’s performance during the game he was injured — where he recorded three points and looked like the high-flying player of 2017-18 — was the rule rather than the exception. But it’s hard to believe he would be that easily duped considering he was a first-hand witness to Wheeler’s hard times last season.

Perhaps when Nikolaj Ehlers returns from injury, Wheeler will be bumped down to the bottom six. But the more likely victim will be top prospect Cole Perfetti, who is currently playing on the second line with Kyle Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois and impressing.

The cold hard fact is Wheeler is not the player he was in seasons past when he was recording close to or more than a point per game. The Jets — to their detriment — have yet to recognize that.