Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Talented Wheeler needs to step it up

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Blake WHEELER has been ordinary. For the Winnipeg Jets to make a step forward, that's just not good enough.

Wheeler was the team's leading scorer last season and appeared to be on the verge of becoming a top-line player while scoring 17 goals and 47 assists in 80 games.

So far, that progress hasn't continued this season and one could argue Wheeler has regressed. Too many nights he's seemed sluggish and uninvolved. The points have come -- he's got four goals and seven assists through 12 games -- but Wheeler has to be about more than a stats line. He needs to control games. He simply hasn't.

He can't be singled out for bad play, but that's a low bar for a player of his skill, size and hockey intellect. There were hints of dominance last season -- Wheeler took over games. He's not doing that this year, and Tuesday night was another example of a so-so outing for the 6-5 Minnesotan.

He had a pair of assists in a 3-2 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, and most players could confidently call his results a good night at the office. But the Jets need him to be more than most players.

He's proven capable of being more than just a steady contributor. He's shown he can lead, and now he must live up to that ability. Not some games. Every game.

Big money

He will be a 26-year-old restricted free agent this summer and the Jets will need to determine what kind of bet to place on him. Big money and big term or just a placeholder deal?

Wheeler's play will determine that course, but right now he's not making a case for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to go all in.

Some players can be criticized for lack of talent. That's not Wheeler. He's got it all, with speed, a big body and elite vision. He can score and dish.

Jets coach Claude Noel has only so many options. He can juggle his lines all he wants, but the players he employs with top-six abilities need to play at that level. Evander Kane has to score, Olli Jokinen has to play well in both ends and Blake Wheeler needs to stand out.

So far this season, Bryan Little and Andrew Ladd have been Winnipeg's most impactful forwards. Wheeler has more to offer than both those players, but he hasn't excelled.

Maybe it's an injury we don't know about. Maybe it's just a funk.

No matter. Whatever it is, he must break out of it.

If Blake Wheeler is ordinary, so are the Winnipeg Jets.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 13, 2013 D1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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