Wheeler has found his identity, but is he ready to be captain?

'I’m kind of turning into a man here. It’s all coming together'

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He’s the Winnipeg Jets’ most dominant offensive performer, he’s clearly captain material and he’s set to join Team USA for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey 2016.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/08/2016 (2283 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

He’s the Winnipeg Jets’ most dominant offensive performer, he’s clearly captain material and he’s set to join Team USA for the upcoming World Cup of Hockey 2016.

Indeed, the city has witnessed the coming of age of Blake Wheeler, who turns 30 Wednesday.

“I’ve always been a late bloomer,” Wheeler said Tuesday after a high-tempo skate at the MTS Iceplex with a couple of teammates and a mix of other pros. “I’m kind of turning into a man here. It’s all coming together.”

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Winnipeg Jets player Blake Wheeler #26 pauses during practice at the MTS Iceplex Tuesday morning.

If the Jets are, indeed, naming their captain Wednesday, as some reports have suggested, isn’t Wheeler the logical choice?

Wheeler has been a huge contributor since the franchise relocated from Atlanta in time for the 2011-12 NHL season, relying on his speed, size and skill to become nearly a point-a-game power forward.

The former University of Minnesota standout led the club with a career-best 78 points during the 2015-16 NHL season, sharing sixth place in league scoring with Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames and Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks.

The chemistry he developed with linemates Mark Scheifele and Nikolaj Ehlers at the tail end of the season gives the club a bona fide No.1 line worthy of special attention from other teams and has Jets fans salivating at the potential damage the trio could do. 

There was a time, however, when the 6-5 native of Plymouth, Minn., suffered a major identity crisis.

“I came from, obviously, a great Boston team,” he said. “I scored a couple of uncharacteristic goals for me, early on in my career in Boston (with) a little bit of dangle. So, I thought I was going to be a dangler and kind of got caught a little bit playing that style. Before you know it, you lose sight of what you’re good at.

“It was kind of my identity crisis — who I was as a player and what my role was going to be.”

He said getting traded from Boston to Atlanta late in the 2010-11 season — the year the Bruins went on, without him, to win the Stanley Cup — was the best thing to happen to him.

“Getting traded to Atlanta, they gave me an opportunity right off the bat, playing with Bryan Little and Andrew Ladd, first line, 20 minutes (a night) regardless of how many mistakes you made or how bad you may have looked,” he said. “It gave me a ton of confidence in myself to go out there. I’ve always been very thankful for that, for (then Atlanta coach) Craig Ramsay giving me that opportunity to kind of re-instill some confidence in myself.”

Wheeler already looks like he’s in game shape, flying during drills at the Iceplex with Jets forwards Alex Burmistrov and Quinton Howden and blue-liner Mark Stuart, and forwards Travis Zajac of the New Jersey Devils, Eric Fehr of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Travis Hamonic of the New York Islanders.

He leaves this weekend to join Jets teammate Dustin Byfuglien and the rest of the American squad at training camp in Columbus, Ohio, as it prepares for the eight-team World Cup of Hockey. Team USA battles Team Canada in a pre-tournament game Friday, Sept. 9, at Nationwide Arena, home of the Columbus Blue Jackets, and the teams collide again the next night in Ottawa.

The games that matter take place from Sept. 17 to Oct. 1 at Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

Wheeler said he’s anxious to get going.

“I think it’ll be great. It’s an exciting tournament. It’s been a long time since they’ve had one, so there’s some uncharted territory,” he said. “It’s tough to really know what to expect, but I think for the most part once you’re in the tournament, once you’re in Toronto, there’s going to be a lot of excitement.

“We get Canada back to back. There’s a mutual respect between the two teams. There probably won’t be a whole lot of bad blood to start, but that’ll probably change pretty quick once the tournament starts.

The Jets will be well-represented at the tournament, with Wheeler and Byfuglien on Team USA, Scheifele, defenceman Jacob Trouba and goalie Connor Hellebuyck on Team North America (the top Canadian and American players who will be 23 or younger as of Oct. 1, 2016), goalie Ondrej Pavelec with Team Czech Republic, and Patrick Laine, selected second overall in the NHL Draft, playing for Finland.

Wheeler said he, too, has caught some of the Laine fever since the Jets struck gold in the draft lottery, moving up from sixth to second to pluck the 18-year-old scoring sensation from Tampere, Finland.

Wheeler hasn’t skated with the teen before but has seen some of the his impressive body of work on film.

“Nothing live, obviously, just the highlights… pretty sweet,” he summed up.

He advised Winnipeg fans to temper their expectations for the coming NHL season, but admitted he’ll be watching the kid closely at the tournament.

“You look at franchises that have turned the corner just by those things. We can all see his ability in the things he brings to the table, and he creates a ton of excitement for us and for the city,” said Wheeler. “But at the same time, he’s 18 years old and hasn’t played a game in the NHL. So, you don’t want to put too much on him too early and have these high expectations that nobody can live up to. You want him to develop at his pace, and when he becomes the player that he’s going to be, he’s going to be a huge piece for his organization.”

Wheeler said he and Laine have already traded verbal jabs about what might happen when the U.S. and Finland hook up.

“I told him I was going to stay out of his way, stay out of that shot lane, when he’s shooting. And he said it’s probably a good idea,” Wheeler said. “I’ll keep track of him and, if we get out there together, I’ll be in his ear a little bit.”

When the tournament wraps up, Wheeler rejoins his regular teammates at Jets training camp, already in full swing by then.

Could he see himself wearing the ‘C’ for the club this season?

“We have a lot of great leaders on our team and whoever wears that letter is going to have a lot of good guys backing him up,” he said. “If I get that opportunity, I’ll embrace it, I’ll be honoured and I’ll have a lot of great guys having my back, so it’s a great situation.”

jason.bell@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @WFPJasonBell

Jason Bell

Jason Bell
Sports editor

Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).

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