The 2018-19 season was not a great one for the Winnipeg Jets. Sure, they finished second in the Central Division with 99 points, but after what they accomplished in 2017-18, something did not seem right this time around. In this series, we will take a look at some key Jets’ players who may or may not have been part of the problem in their up and down 2018-19 campaign.
Blake Wheeler had another fantastic season for the Jets. He has turned into a true leader who leads by example and leaves it all on the ice every shift of every game. He finished the season with 91 points in 82 games played and added five points in six playoff games against the St. Louis Blues. He set a new career-high for himself with 71 assists, good for third in the NHL behind Connor McDavid and Nikita Kucherov.
Wheeler has always been a work-horse for the Jets, especially since being named the team’s new captain at the beginning of the 2016-17 season. He has averaged over 20 minutes of ice time in each of the last three seasons. He has also only missed six regular-season games in the eight years the Jets have been back in Winnipeg.
If there is one thing fans will remember about Wheeler, it will be his amazing ability to pass the puck. Wheeler has revolutionized his passing both on the power play and at even strength. He makes impossible-looking passes seem routine – and as witnessed by his 139 assists over the past two seasons – he does it on a nightly basis.
The 32-year-old (soon to be 33-year-old) registered 31 of his 71 assists on the power play last season and has mastered his spot on the half-wall during the Jets’ power play. Everything runs through Wheeler, whether it is a cross-ice pass to Patrik Laine, a quick feed to Mark Scheifele in the slot, or a pass up to Dustin Byfuglien at the point, it all comes from the Jets’ captain.
He has a strong hockey sense and vision to know when to put some air on a pass through traffic, or when to rifle it tape-to-tape when a small lane opens up. How many times did we see him hit Laine through traffic with a saucer-pass (sometimes a no-look saucer-pass) and think ourselves, how did he do that? You almost get disappointed when he shoots the puck now because of his amazing passing abilities.
Can Wheeler Keep Pace?
After back-to-back 91 points seasons, can Wheeler continue contributing at over a point-per-game pace for the 2019-20 season? The quick answer is yes. He has produced 334 points over the last four seasons combined (327 games) and has shown no signs of slowing down any time soon. Wheeler has recently stated in an interview:
(From Jason Bell’s ‘Jets captain eager to get rid of foul taste left from early playoff exit,’ Winnipeg Free Press, 08/20/2019)
“Physically, I feel better than I ever have, and I’ve said that before and I’ve meant it. It’s been the truth. People grow up and grow into themselves at different speeds and I was a late-bloomer. I didn’t grow into my body until I hit 30.”
Wheeler seems to be getting better with age, as he stated in the above quote, so I am personally not worried at all. We have all seen his game grow – the past two seasons in particular – and he is now being considered a top 20 winger in the entire NHL. Even if head coach Paul Maurice does experiment with the lines and breaks up Scheifele and Wheeler, I still see Wheeler producing at a high rate.
This is all really good news for Jets fan – Wheeler is signed for another five years until he is 37 years old – If his best years are still ahead of him, we won’t have to worry about an $8.25 million cap hit attached to a “has been” in another four-to-five years.
Wheeler’s 2017-18 season was slightly better than last year, so we won’t call the 2018-19 season his best. However, it is a very close second and Wheeler continues to show why he is the current captain of this team.
I liked what he brought to the team even when he was not producing points. He played with an edge and battled for every loose puck possible. Wheeler has always been strong defensively and still continues to grow that side of his game. I think we saw the Jets’ top line get a little rattled when things weren’t going well towards the end of last season, but nothing to fully degrade their season as a whole.
With Wheeler finishing the season with 91 points, an even plus/minus rating, performing very well in the playoffs, being the quarterback of the fourth-ranked power play in the NHL, I think it is only fair to say he deserves a solid grade.
He is poised to come into the new season highly motivated and ready to prove the doubters wrong. We should see the Jets power play operate at a high pace like they did last season, which will mean a lot more power-play assists for Wheeler. I am predicting 25-plus goals and 65-plus assists from him for the 2019-20 season.