Wheels forces less, wins more

Shifting focus to creating offence out of defence pays off for No. 26

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Blake Wheeler could be a point-a-game player. But then the Winnipeg Jets likely wouldn't be a playoff team.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/03/2015 (2818 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Blake Wheeler could be a point-a-game player. But then the Winnipeg Jets likely wouldn’t be a playoff team.

The 28-year-old Wheeler best represents the Jets and their transformation from a group of individuals into a team. From an easy-to-play-against opponent into a difficult bunch to beat.

Wheeler has 22 goals and 55 points through 68 games this season and is a plus-19.

John Woods / The Canadian and Associated Press Winnipeg Jets' Blake Wheeler (26) avoids a check from St. Louis Blues' Zbynek Michalek (right) as Jets' Drew Stafford (12) looks on.

He had his hands full on Thursday skating against a stacked Blues line of Alex Steen, T.J. Oshie and David Backes. No points for Wheeler but the Jets earned two valuable points in a 2-1 shootout win.

This season, he’s fought, checked and finally scored. He’s become a power forward and worked more in the hard areas of the ice than ever before. He doesn’t get pushed out of games but makes opponents fade instead. Wheeler doesn’t just score but he does so late in games and with the outcome on the line.

Wheeler has sacrificed individual success and the comfort of playing on a set line with centre Bryan Little and captain Andrew Ladd by moving to a line with second-year centre Mark Scheifele.

The move has given the Jets added offensive balance and depth. For a long time, Winnipeg could safely be called a one-line team. No longer, and Wheeler is at the middle of this growth.

Big, skilled and fast, Wheeler has the package to chase the scoring leaders in the NHL. For a time, and Wheeler was not alone in this among his teammates, individual points were a priority. Now it’s all about team.

“So you’ve got a young guy that comes in with great speed and he feels he has real good offensive abilities, so that’s what he wants to bring to the table (and) he’s going to bring that every night,” said Jets coach Paul Maurice when asked Thursday morning about Wheeler’s growth as a player.

“And I think, going back and watching the Atlanta/Winnipeg teams, that’s what was happening. ‘I’m going to score,’ and everybody was trying to play that game. There has to be more to your game than that, and they all recognize that.

Wheeler had six goals and five assists in his last seven games prior to Thursday’s game against the St. Louis Blues. With Little, the productive Mathieu Perreault and veteran defenceman Dustin Byfuglien out of the lineup, Wheeler has found an extra gear.

He’s provided offence and led his team recently in a return to the defensive structure that led them to early success but had faded. Wheeler has been the example his teammates have emulated. Check first, the offence will follow.

“I think since Paul’s got here, it’s helped me have a realization of how I can be a best asset to this team at both ends of the rink,” said Wheeler, who earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team last year. “I guess that’s the biggest thing, learning that you don’t have to sacrifice playing good defensively to produce offensively.”

Wheeler is just 28 and he and his wife have a son under three. His current contract is a six-year deal worth $33.6 million. That’s enough money to get a guy just about everything he wants in this world. Sometimes a contract like that can make a player content. But for Wheeler, the birth of his son and starting a family was a moment of clarity money couldn’t cloud.

“A light went on,” he said. “Things that were important for me before weren’t as important anymore. Now I have two things in my life: those guys (wife and son) and this room. This is my family. I probably see these guys more than I see my own family. It’s changed some things in me, for sure. It’s brought about a responsibility to those guys.

“I hold myself to a higher standard just because I have a kid now. You want to be a good role model. And it’s cut out some things that were important to me before. That’s where you start fighting for your livelihood. I remember, when I was young, I had that conversation with my dad. He’s like, ‘You’re going to go to camp and you’re probably going to take a job from a guy that has a wife and kids and a family,’ so that’s when it gets real. And now I’m in that position.”

The story goes that when Scotty Bowman arrived in Detroit to coach the Red Wings, he asked Steve Yzerman if he wanted to keep piling up the 100-point seasons or win a championship. Yzerman decided to listen to his coach and stacked up five first-place regular-season finishes and three Stanley Cup championships (1997, 1998, and 2002).

Yzerman had six consecutive seasons of 100 points or more early in his career but is best remembered as the Cup-winning captain of the Wings.

Players can determine how they are described during their careers and ultimately remembered.

“I would want people to say I’m no fun to play against,” said Wheeler. “I think the biggest compliment you can get is ‘He works hard out there, and it’s not a great matchup any time you’re out there with him.’ So I think that’s what I try to do, I try to work hard every time I’m on the ice, and make it as difficult as I can on the other team whenever I have the chance.”

Wheeler has yet to deliver his Jets into the post-season. But in his mind he’s made the switch. Winning isn’t just the ultimate goal, it’s the only goal.

“If I play the right way, the offence should follow. Or maybe it doesn’t,” he said. “It’s not how I gauge how I’m playing anymore. I know when I’m playing well now and it has to do with how we’re playing as a team.”

Those are great words. Even greater when coming from Wheeler.

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

History

Updated on Friday, March 20, 2015 8:58 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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