PHOENIX — Given the chance to shoulder at least some of the blame for his team’s current struggles, Blake Wheeler used it as an opportunity to vent his frustration for what’s been a disappointing season.
The Winnipeg Jets entered the year considered by many pundits to be among the NHL’s contenders for the Stanley Cup, but have fallen well short of that projection. The Jets have struggled to find consistency all year, boasting a 22-21-9 record through 52 games and are currently mired in a four-game losing streak.
Asked by the Free Press how much of the Jets issues this year rest on the shoulders of the team’s leadership group, Wheeler, the club’s captain, got his back up. He never did directly answer the question, which began with a clear acknowledgment that it is the same leadership group led by the veteran winger that also deserved credit for the Jets rise in recent years.
“Well, I guess that’s the real joy of being in that position. When things go good, nobody says a word about you, and when things go bad, you know, it’s your fault,” Wheeler said in the bowels of Gila River Arena following Saturday’s practice. “So, I’m comfortable. If you need to write a negative story, you can write it about me. No different than in the past.”
The answer held the assumption that Wheeler felt he’s never been appreciated during his 11 years in Winnipeg, a curious statement given the mounds of evidence to the contrary. Few, if any, have been celebrated during their time with Jets more than Wheeler, and he’s still among the most respected players, evident by all the love shown to him by fans after playing his 1,000th NHL game less than three months ago.
“I was just, I guess, being a little bit sarcastic,” Wheeler said.
An NHL locker room can be a miserable place when a team doesn’t get the results it wants, and Wheeler has certainly been, at times, a target of criticism, both by fans and media. Much like the entire team, he’s been streaky in his play this year, resulting in some questioning his ice time and future in Winnipeg.
That’s understandably tough to hear, especially for someone as dedicated to his craft as Wheeler. But it’s also — rightly or wrongly — part of being paid millions as a professional athlete. Wheeler is the highest paid player on the Jets, in the third year of a five-year deal that carries an annual average value of US$8.25 million.
Wheeler appears to be acutely aware of some of the shade that’s been thrown his way.
“I think the fact that I’m still here talking to you instead of doing something else speaks volumes,” he noted.
That angst, it can be argued, is part of Wheeler’s fierce competitiveness. He’s played through gruesome injuries, some of which have never been made public before, and you can’t argue with his deep desire to win.
But it can also come across as having a lack of accountability. And a heavy sense of entitlement. Neither of which are synonymous with wearing the C.
Wheeler has also been given mostly free reign by the Jets organization. He runs the locker room, taking on the heavy burden of having to keep teammates accountable, and has a say in personnel decisions.
That was only magnified under the leadership of former head coach Paul Maurice, who seemed to understand the importance of keeping his captain content. While interim head coach Dave Lowry has shown only respect for his captain — and understands if the Jets are going to make a run to the playoffs Wheeler will be a key part — he hasn’t been as accommodating. Under Lowry, Wheeler has been benched for poor play, something Maurice never did.
Asked if Maurice’s sudden departure, after quitting the team midway through December, has hindered the team’s success, Wheeler started to answer but stopped just a few words in.
“I think Paul was… maybe today’s not the day to go into that,” he said.
Wheeler has said before that this year he’s faced the most adversity over his 14-year NHL career, as an individual and collectively as a team. He contracted COVID-19 at the start of the season, and just when he began hitting his groove, he suffered a serious knee injury.
Still, he is nearly at a point-per-game pace, with six goals and 28 assists for 34 points in 38 games, playing on the top line and No. 1 power play. But Wheeler has also scored in spurts, with more than a third of his points (13) coming over a recent five-game stretch. He has one goal and one assist in his last four games and is a minus-10.
One of the Jets biggest issues this season is getting their top two lines going on the same night. Far too often this it’s been either Wheeler’s line, which includes Mark Scheifele and Paul Stastny, or the trio of Kyle Connor, Pierre-Luc Dubois and, for now, Evgeny Svechnikov, exchanging big nights on offence.
“Not sure, I guess. I don’t know,” Wheeler said, when asked about the inconsistency of the top to lines. “I’m not dodging your questions, you’re just asking questions I don’t have answers to, clearly.”
But the biggest concern of all is this late in the season the Jets seem to be unaware of who exactly they are. Dubois and Adam Lowry expressed their feelings over a lack of identity, which they spoke about following Friday’s crushing 6-3 loss to the Colorado Avalanche.
Establishing that ultimately falls on the coach, but it’s also the team’s leadership, led by Wheeler, that will be leaned on to help execute the style they want to play. And play consistently.
“That’s a deeper-rooted question. If guys don’t feel like we have an identity, then I wouldn’t really be sure why we don’t feel like we have an identity,” Wheeler said. “So, that would be something, I guess, we would have to sit around and talk about as a team, to get to the bottom of. I don’t really have a good answer for that one right now.”
After a slew of injuries playing hockey that included breaks to the wrist, arm, and collar bone; a tear of the medial collateral ligament in both knees; as well as a collapsed lung, Jeff figured it was a good idea to take his interest in sports off the ice and in to the classroom.
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