It began over a cup of coffee, the captain and the general manager sitting down together to discuss the memorable season they’d just finished — and what it was going to take to do it all over again.
Now just over three months after that informal but all-important chit-chat, Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler and general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff have brewed up a major deal that will percolate both through the franchise and the rest of the NHL.
“I couldn’t see myself anywhere else,” Wheeler said Tuesday after signing a five-year, $41.25-million contract extension that will likely guarantee he finishes out his career in Winnipeg, where he’s been since the team relocated from Atlanta in 2011.
“There’s been guys here that have invested a lot of time and a lot of blood, sweat and tears to try and build this into something we can be proud of. Hopefully, we are getting to the point now where we can be a contending team year-in and year-out. That’s kind of what we’ve been pushing for. To be able to be locked into those years is really exciting.”
Wheeler, 32, will earn an annual average of $8.25 million through the 2023-24 season. The right-winger from Plymouth, Minn., is entering the final year of his current contract, which pays him $5.6 million, and would have been an unrestricted free agent able to sign with the highest bidder next summer.
There’s no doubt he would have been a hot commodity on the open market. Wheeler is coming off the most productive season of his career, with 23 goals and 68 assists over 81 regular-season games. He added three goals and 18 assists in 17 playoff games as the Jets made it to the Western Conference final.
The new deal will make Wheeler the highest-paid player on the Jets — at least for now. Patrik Laine needs a new contract next year and the Finnish sniper could surpass it, given his penchant for putting pucks in the net.
“It’s an exciting day for us. It’s one of those days where you are going to look back and realize the importance of this, and certainly the commitment we’ve made to Blake and the commitment Blake has made to this franchise and to the community as well,” Cheveldayoff said Tuesday.
“One thing I’m extremely excited about and proud about is just to see a player like Blake Wheeler, who was part of this organization from Day 1, to see where he has come from that Day 1 until now, to see the leader he’s become. To see the father he’s become, to see the community man that he’s become. This is Winnipeg, this is what it’s all about, this is where our franchise is.”
News of the extension spread quickly throughout Bell MTS Iceplex Tuesday, where Wheeler joined more than a dozen other Jets players and prospects for an on-ice workout.
“It’s awesome. For me personally, it’s nice to have him because he’s a friend of mine and I’ve played with him for a long time, so it’s nice to know he’s gonna be here for a while. But for this team, it’s even bigger. I think he was a huge part of our season last year and how far we got and he’s going to be a big part of it in the future,” said veteran centre Bryan Little.
“He’s just one of those guys that you can’t go out there and replace or find a player similar to what he can do. And what he can do for this team in the dressing room and off ice, you can’t find anyone else like that.”
Wheeler said there was some urgency to get a deal done before training camp begins next week.
“I wanted to do this once right now, talk about contracts once and then play hockey. I didn’t want this to a be a year-long thing where we’re coming in every day getting asked about stuff like that,” he said.
Wheeler showed off his extreme versatility last year, sliding to centre for a 16-game stretch after Mark Scheifele went down with an injury. Wheeler and the team didn’t miss a beat, going 11-2-3 during that stretch. The six-foot-five, 225-pound forward was named to his first NHL all-star game last year and garnered some mid-season Hart Trophy (league MVP) chatter.
“Particularly, with where I’m at in my career, with my age, I feel like my best years are ahead of me. I wanted to give those years to his organization and hopefully push this team to the championship levels,” said Wheeler.
Little said he has no doubt Wheeler can continue to be one of the most productive wingers in the game for years to come.
“I think just the way he handles himself. He showed that he can play full seasons, hasn’t missed a lot of games. He takes care of himself. He’s a real professional when it comes to eating and working out and taking care of himself,” said Little.
“And that’s another good reason to have him here, for young guys to kind of see this is the way you should be handling yourself and being a professional off the ice. It’s pretty cool to see just what he does off ice. He puts a lot of work into it.”
Cheveldayoff called Wheeler an “extraordinary athlete” who sets the bar extremely high for everyone around him in terms of fitness.
“He’s a driver of our team and he’s grown into that. Blake is an interesting individual in a sense that he wasn’t one of those guys who started playing at 18 or 19 in the league. I think the mileage on the odometer is a little different than the age on the clock,” he said.
“It’s a very competitive marketplace. You’ve 31 teams in the National Hockey League competing for the same thing. And when you have a leader, an individual that is, one, driven to be the best that he can be, but two, driven by the same goals that an organization is, and three, is a fantastic person that is a great part of the community, that’s kind of a win-win-win scenario.”
He said getting Wheeler extended was a top priority, even as he’s been dealing with a number of other restricted free agents who needed new contracts.
“Obviously, we had a busy summer and we appreciate everyone’s patience including Blake’s to get this deal done,” said Cheveldayoff, who believes the cap hit will still provide enough flexibility for future deals that need to get done.
“We had numerous discussions over the course of the period of time that we talked about different terms, different lengths, different opportunities. As in any negotiation you try to find where the sweet spots might be and try to work toward something that works for both sides,” said Cheveldayoff. “I think both sides are very comfortable with the term. Certainly, when dealing in the world we’re dealing in, you never know what’s in front of you as things change with the cap… but we’re very excited about this deal.”
Wheeler said he was heavily involved in the bargaining process along with his agent and wanted to ensure contract wouldn’t be damaging to the franchise going forward.
“It doesn’t really do you any good to try and get every last dollar and you don’t have a team to play with,” he said.
“So I think there’s been a lot of that that has to go on here, because we’re really lucky, we have a lot of good players. And we do live in a salary-cap world. There’s some give and take. You’ve got to find the right threshold so that you’re happy, they’re happy and everyone can try to be happy. It’s not always possible in the world we live in, but you try to do the best you can.”
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.