The leader of the Winnipeg Jets seems lost.
After a 3-2 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Tuesday, a despondent and downcast Blake Wheeler acknowledged things weren’t right with his team but seemed to have no ideas on how to fix their foibles.
“There’s certain times in this game where it feels real tough. We’re kind of going through all that right now. Just trying to figure out our identity and make it work on the fly,” he said.
“We’re a little bit snake-bit right now,” he continued. “Maybe because of that we are feeling a little bit sorry for ourselves… when it’s not bouncing our way and you’re in the fight, you’re in the fight and you just can’t seem to get it turned around. It’s certainly frustrating. It’s a lame excuse but it’s the truth.”
Wheeler’s Been Way Off of Late
It’s true: absolutely nothing is coming easily for the 5-6-0 squad that just dropped four out of five games on their homestand. Also true: Wheeler shares in the blame for it, because he is playing some uncharacteristically bad hockey. Tuesday’s game was his fifth straight without a point, and in that same span, he’s a minus-seven.
That’s unusual for someone known as a prolific playmaker and power forward; the veteran of 12 NHL seasons is fresh off posting back-to-back 91-point campaigns and got off to a good start with three goals and three assists in his first six games of 2019-20.
Since then, though, there’s nothing powerful about his across-the-board poor play; he is not skating hard, his passes have been inaccurate, and his decision making has been inexplicably muddled.
Most alarmingly, Wheeler has a grand total of zero power-play points, almost unthinkable considering he piled up 73 of them over the past two seasons on an exceedingly dangerous and in-sync unit that consistently made opponents pay for undisciplined play.
“The fact that we’re 11 games in and the guy who’s supposed to be the quarterback of one of the best power plays in the league doesn’t even have a single point — a secondary assist, even — tells you everything about his state of play,” the Winnipeg Free Press’ Mike McIntyre said in his most recent Jetcetera podcast, in which he and sports editor Steve Lyons discussed the right-winger’s rough patch at length.
You knew things were bad when head coach Paul Maurice separated Wheeler from Mark Scheifele and moved Nikolaj Ehlers to the top line during Tuesday’s game after they were soundly outplayed in the first 30 minutes — Wheeler and Scheifele have almost always been exempt from Maurice’s line blender.
“I don’t think that line’s been productive enough,” Maurice said as to why he broke the duo up. “Patrik, Mark, and Blake, for the last three or four games, haven’t really generated what we would normally expect…” Maurice went on to note the top six will be interchangeable going forward as he tries to find the best mix.
Despite Thursday being a team day off, Wheeler showed up to the Bell MTS Iceplex anyway, strapped on his skates, and got some work in all by his lonesome.
What’s to Blame for Wheeler’s Woes?
The scariest and worst-case scenario is that this is the Wheeler we can expect from now on, and that at 33, he’s begun the “inevitable decline” all players go through as they get older.
McIntyre even suggested as such in a recent op-ed, writing “it’s important to remember that when it comes to sports, Father Time remains the undisputed champion.” (from ‘Are the Wheels falling off?’ Winnipeg Free Press, 10/23/19.)
If true, the Jets are… well… screwed. Wheeler is in just the first year of a five-year, $41.25-million contract.
Yours truly feels it’s ridiculously premature to suddenly deem Wheeler an over-the-hill old man, especially given his work ethic, commitment, and offensive output over the past two seasons. No one was entertaining even a few weeks ago any notion Wheeler’s best days were behind him. In fact, they were gushing about how he just gets better with age.
It’s more likely Wheeler is struggling to figure out how to be a snarling bulldog in his role as an NHL captain but a softer person in his personal life. Last month, he admitted he lost sense of his priorities during the Jets’ Stanley Cup chase that ultimately ended with a first-round exit to the St. Louis Blues.
“I was disappointed for the first time in myself after last year not because we didn’t win the Stanley Cup. I lost touch with myself as a Dad, as a husband, first and foremost, because I invested so much into trying to win,” he said in September.
“And when I was in the building, sometimes I was spitting nails just because I wanted to win the Stanley Cup,” he continued. “I was so focused on that. When it was all done and I got home, it’s like ‘Man, this is almost too…’ My daughter’s growing up, my son’s in kindergarten, none of this is that important.”
McIntyre noted Wheeler is displaying a “vulnerability” this season that he hasn’t in the past. Usually, he displays bravado, defiance, and confidence when speaking with the media. He even told the Winnipeg Sun’s Paul Friesen to “f**k off” last April after the reporter suggested the Jets didn’t give their best effort in Game 6 of the first round against the Blues. Perhaps if he finds that feistiness again, he’ll start finding the scoresheet again too.
It’s also possible Wheeler is simply overwhelmed by trying to hold a tenuous team together. The Jets have a motley crew D-corp and haven’t cultivated a real identity or any consistency yet; they’re trying to “figure it out on the fly,” as he said.
Trying to help such an in-flux team gel and trend in the right direction, while also trying to prove the Cup window hasn’t closed as many are saying, would challenge even the most committed, intelligent, and respected.
Jets Need the Real Wheeler Back Soon
The Jets already have enough issues on the back end and bottom-six. No one predicted the top-six, let alone the steady Wheeler, would be anything but excellent. In fact, the only way many saw them winning on some nights — author included — was if they could outscore their defensive deficiencies.
Wheeler’s track record indicates he can return to being the player who leads by example and produces night-in, night-out: last season, he had only one pointless streak longer than two games.
Regardless of the reason for his struggles, the Jets need Wheeler to figure out how to morph back into his true form soon. They’ll need him at his best if they want to survive the next month and a bit: 10 of their next 16 games are against teams that made the playoffs last season.