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Blake Wheeler’s five-year, $41.25-million extension hasn’t even kicked in yet, but it’s already looking like a steal.
Dare I say the Winnipeg Jets captain is underpaid?
He certainly is this season, as Wheeler plays the final year of his previous deal at a paltry $5.6 million. That’s chump change in today’s NHL for a player whose value to a legitimate Stanley Cup contender has never been greater. The Jets are 10-5-1 and have the league’s fourth-best winning percentage, thanks in no small part to Wheeler.
Named the NHL’s second star of the week Monday after posting seven points (one goal, six assists) in a pair of Jets victories last week, Wheeler appears to be like a fine wine: the 32-year-old is seemingly getting better with age.
While many players in their early 30s are seeing a rapid decline in their game, Wheeler looks like he’s discovered the fountain of youth playing on a Winnipeg squad filled with young talent.
He is coming off a career-best 91-point season (23 goals, 68 assists) and is on track through 16 games this season to blow away that production. He has three goals and 20 helpers so far, which puts him on a 118-point pace.
Nobody in the league has more assists than Wheeler, and he’s tied for fourth in NHL scoring with some guy named Connor McDavid.
And consider this: until the past two games, both 5-2 victories over Colorado and New Jersey, it would be accurate to say this Jets squad had yet to consistently find their game, especially at five-on-five play, and that included Wheeler.
He makes everyone around him better, and his passing and playmaking abilities have become elite. Patrik Laine, with eight goals this season (seven on the power play), would likely be lost in the wilderness without Wheeler setting him up. Kyle Connor has seemingly taken on many of Wheeler’s tenacious traits through osmosis. The same with Mark Scheifele, who will rave at every opportunity about what Wheeler has done for his development.
“He’s amazing. I say it every day. I’m lucky to play with him. He’s a fantastic player. He’s a great friend. What stands out about him is how hard he works. Good things happen to guys who work hard. I’m definitely very lucky to play with him,” Scheifele said Sunday night after scoring twice to give him a team-leading nine goals.
Nikolaj Ehlers, seemingly dazed and confused with just one goal over a 30-game span dating back to last year, has now lit the lamp in three straight games playing on the top line with Wheeler and Scheifele. Coincidence? I think not.
Wheeler brings so much more to the Jets than just his offensive abilities, of course, and two examples over the past two games perfectly illustrate that.
There was defenceman Josh Morrissey on Friday night, moments after Wheeler put the finishing touches on a career-best five-point night, revealing an interesting nugget about the captain’s focus a few hours before puck drop.
“Tonight, I drove to the game with him and you could tell he was ready to go. I know Wheels pretty well. We drive to the games together sometimes. I just had a feeling,” said Morrissey.
“He’s a guy that drives our bus every single day in practice, in the gym and basically in every aspect of being a professional hockey player. He’s the guy that we follow.”
Then there was this reaction on Sunday night, after Wheeler put up another two points in an impressive Jets win over the Devils. A scribe had just asked him about the neat and tidy way his team locked things down in the final period.
“That’s assuming I liked the third period,” Wheeler snapped back.
General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff and coach Paul Maurice must absolutely love that kind of response. The message Wheeler is sending to everyone is that complacency won’t be tolerated in the room. There will be no resting on your laurels, and there’s no “me first” attitude with Wheeler, who would likely prefer a root canal over talking about any of his personal accomplishments.
We heard that time and time again last season as the Jets set franchise records and made it to the third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. We heard it again in training camp, with a “we ain’t done nothing yet,” approach from Wheeler.
And expect to keep hearing it until the Jets do reach hockey’s promised land.
And somehow, Wheeler continues to do all this beneath the radar. A recent poll of 61 top NHL players asked who was the most underrated in the league. Wheeler came in third, behind Florida’s Aleksander Barkov and Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom.
Wheeler definitely isn’t underrated in Winnipeg, even if some fans may have questioned the big extension Cheveldayoff handed out late this past summer.
Sure, it’s a gamble giving a player a five-year extension that doesn’t even kick in until he turns 33, but Wheeler is no ordinary player. He’s a fitness fanatic, dedicated to doing everything he can on and off the ice to improve his game and make those around him better. And with a wide-open window of opportunity staring them in the face right now, the Jets couldn’t afford to let the heartbeat of the team get away.
Did they potentially overpay for the last couple years of the deal? Perhaps, but that’s a risk well worth taking. They’ve had Wheeler on the cheap for a few years, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
The guy is money in the bank right now, and the Jets and their fanbase are poised to cash in for the foreseeable future.
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.