Winnipeg Jets’ captain Blake Wheeler faced reporters yesterday after the Jets — who had still technically been in the playoff race — were finally put to bed by the out-of-town scoreboard. Surprisingly, he took responsibility for their failures.
There’s quite a bit to glean from Wheeler’s nearly 10 minutes of comments, and here, we’ll take a look at them.
Wheeler Despondent About Lost Season
Speaking over Zoom in Raleigh on Thursday — a day after being mathematically eliminated from postseason contention after the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Washington Capitals 4-3 in overtime — Wheeler was despondent.
“It just feels like we’re kind of back at square one,” he said prior to the final game of a disastrous four-game eastern road trip where his team’s many glaring flaws were exposed. “Built so long to get to a championship level and then sitting here is pretty deflating.”
Deflating indeed. The Jets came into the season considered by many, this author included, to be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, with a complement of high-octane forwards and defensive corp that looked to be much improved with the additions of Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt. Along with Vezina-winner Connor Hellebuyck in goal, the Jets, on paper, seemed locked and loaded for a deep run.
But things never came together and the team continually underachieved. In many games, they looked disinterested, unmotivated, and downright lazy. Their top scorers went dry too often and failed to cash in when it mattered. Their lack of committment to any sort of stout defensive structure led to far too many high-danger chances against and too many pucks in the back of their net.
The Jets have a four-game homestand coming up to wrap the season, but nothing in particular to play for other than trying to entertain fans. At 35-32-11, if they don’t beat or lose in overtime against at least one of the Colorado Avalanche, Philadelphia Flyers, Calgary Flames, or Seattle Kraken, they won’t even finish above .500.
“This is the best part of the year to be a hockey player, except when you’re in our shoes, then it’s the worst,” Wheeler said. “It’s really disappointing. It’s hard to put in words, the feeling, you know, what it feels like.”
Wheeler, Surprisingly, Takes Responsibility for Team’s Failures
For the most part, the captain hid away and rarely faced reporters this season. When he did, he gave short, stilted answers, spouted cliches, or was pointlessly combative with journalists just trying to do their jobs. But he finally changed his tune on Thursday.
“Well, I think I would have to take responsibility for that,” he said when asked about the Jets’ flaws. “It’s been my job to build the culture here and I’ve taken a lot of pride in that over the years. So I certainly look in the mirror on that one, and where we’ve gotten to, and the team that we were and the team that we are now. I don’t hide from that at all.”Blake Wheeler
“I certainly take the responsibility for where this team sits,” he continued. “Hopefully we have a locker room full of guys doing the same thing. Like I said, I’ve tried to build this into something we can be proud of, something that can be a championship level every year. And when you fall short of that you’ve got to take responsibility for it.”
Perhaps the locker room is not full of guys doing the same thing, but Kyle Connor and Pierre-Luc Dubois have both spoken candidly recently about a sorry state of affairs.
After being hammered on back-to-back nights by the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning, Connor suggested that although the Jets were fighting for their playoff lives, that there was a “lack of motivation (with) some of the guys in the room.”
Dubois — whose detailed and insightful answers this season oozed “future captain” — said after the Jets were shut out 3-0 by the New York Rangers on Tuesday that “it’s been like this the whole year.”
“I think that’s what’s frustrating,” the 23-year-old continued. “There’s some nights where it just feels like we’re playing catch up, even if we’re close, even if it’s a close game. With the talent we have, I think we can do a much better job of forcing teams to play our way, and not us feeling like we’re trying to catch up to their pace, trying to catch up to their puck movement and their breakouts and everything.”
Lack of Winning Culture Falls on Wheeler
Building a winning culture is something the ultra-serious Wheeler has failed to do. Rumours of a dressing room divided go all the way back to 2019, when the Jets fell apart down the stretch and out of first place in the Central Division. Remember Paul Maurice’s “ruffled feathers” comment, which indicated — although he walked back the phrase months later — some players’ egos were too big and relations were fractured?
Remember the reports last January that part of the reason Patrik Laine wanted out was due to how Wheeler and alternate captain Mark Scheifele treated him? Remember when Maurice resigned in December, in part, because he just couldn’t get through to the team anymore?
The hard truth is the Jets have no identity, and fans have recognized that. Jets’ tickets, in the early years after the franchise relocated from Atlanta, were nearly impossible to come by. Now, there’s about 2000 empty seats per night at Canada Life Centre and a sizeable portion of the fan base no longer feels the team is worth their hard-earned dollars or attention.
True North Must Examine Everything This Offseason, Including Leadership Core
If the Jets really are back at “square one” as Wheeler said, then True North needs to leave no part of the cadaver unexamined during their offseason post-mortem.
Wheeler said his first priority is “to regain the form that we had that made us a contender,” but remained tight-lipped about exactly what he would do or who he would talk to. That begs the question: is the project to “regain the form” one Wheeler should be entrusted to head up?
Major changes are certainly needed if the Jets are going to be anything more than mediocre. Changes considered this summer should include trades of key personnel, a total revamp of the coaching staff, and yes, if Wheeler is still fit to wear the “C.”
It’s rare for a team to strip a player of his captaincy, but in this case, there should be no sacred cows. The fact remains that with Wheeler at the controls, the Jets have crash-landed and are at their lowest point in 11 years.
They have won just three playoff rounds and advanced past the first round only twice since Wheeler took over as captain in 2016-17. Even during the seasons they qualified, Hellebuyck’s outstanding goaltending covered up systemic flaws that, as a result, were totally ignored until now.
In a results-based business, Wheeler’s aren’t good enough, and sometimes taking responsibility for failures means accepting consequences. Perhaps losing the captaincy should be Wheeler’s. Perhaps if he really does “look in the mirror,” as he said he would, he’ll find he should relinquish it willingly.