Jets leadership change necessary Relieving Wheeler of C beneficial to franchise and player
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Blake Wheeler isn’t blowing smoke when he says being captain of the Winnipeg Jets had become a burden.
You could often see it on his face when he stepped to the podium to talk with the media — an exercise, it should be noted, which became more painful and infrequent over the past few seasons. You could hear it in his voice, with short, often snippy answers that ultimately served no real purpose. And you could see it on the ice, where his play began to dip and the weight of increased expectations on a team led by an aging veteran carrying the biggest salary-cap hit clearly took a toll.
For those reasons alone, this week’s stunning decision to strip Wheeler of the C was a necessary, and perhaps overdue, move.
Frankly, I didn’t think the Jets had the gumption to actually pull the trigger. After a sleepy summer where very little was done to address holes on the roster, shaking up the leadership group sends a loud and clear message that it’s not going to be business as usual around here.
Tip your cap to new bench boss Rick Bowness, who isn’t being brought in at the age of 68 simply to play the role of Mr. Nice Guy. He’s not pulling any punches. And this one in Wheeler’s direction was a haymaker.
As much as the captaincy felt overwhelming for Wheeler, it was also becoming an obstacle for an organization that has gotten far too comfortable with the status quo.
Wheeler is the last of the Atlanta “old guard,” a proud player who has given his heart and soul to the franchise for more than a decade. He also represented what has often been a weakness in Winnipeg — blind loyalty which can stand in the way of progress, a reluctance to take risks and make big moves in the name of winning.
Nobody is suggesting the Jets need to borrow a page from the Vegas Golden Knights and treat players like chattel. The definition of insanity truly is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Winnipeg, under Wheeler, had gone as far as they were going to. Likely several seasons ago, in fact.
Winnipeg, under Wheeler, had gone as far as they were going to. Likely several seasons ago, in fact. That’s not to suggest he’s responsible, but rather one of the cold, hard realities of pro sports.
From a talent and production perspective, the keys have already been turned over to young guns like Kyle Connor, Nikolaj Ehlers and Pierre-Luc Dubois. That transition wasn’t happening the way it needed to inside the room, which has been a major focal point with the Jets dating back to the midway point of the 2018-19 season when fortunes took a sharp turn to the south.
Feathers have been ruffled. Closed-door meetings have been held. Many eggshells have been walked on. Heck, a beloved, long-time coach who seemed to have a lifetime contract flat-out quit out of frustration. It really came to a head last year, with the likes of Connor, Ehlers and Dubois repeatedly voicing frustration at the state of the squad as things didn’t improve after Paul Maurice took his puck and went home.
Given how pointed they were in public, one can imagine what was being said privately.
It’s noteworthy none of these young players wore a letter on their sweater, but along with Adam Lowry, the now departed Andrew Copp and Paul Stastny and alternate captain Josh Morrissey, they were the ones frequently answering the bell when the going got tough.
Part of that was the choice of Wheeler and the Jets PR team. Part of it was because us in the media stopped requesting to speak with Wheeler as much, knowing it was likely to be an exercise in futility that accomplished little.
For that reason alone, change was needed. Winnipeg is a hockey-mad market, and you’d like your face and voice of the club to be seen and heard a lot more than Wheeler.
Perhaps this will give the 36-year-old a bit of a new lease on his hockey life, the way Los Angeles Kings forward Dustin Brown says he felt reborn after a similar move in Southern California several years ago. Wheeler can still be productive with the proper usage, and now he has one less thing on his plate. He can focus purely on hockey, rather than something he clearly wasn’t having much fun doing.
We know the Jets looked at moving Wheeler this summer, and that door isn’t completely shut based on what he said Friday. Winnipeg will likely have to eat some of his US$8.25 million salary to make it happen. Whether he’s around a couple more weeks, a couple more months, or a couple more years until the expiration of his contract, an important step has been taken.
It says here Morrissey, Ehlers, Connor, Lowry and Dubois (if he elects to sign here long-term) should all be considered for letters.
Now the organization can begin to move on with new voices and new ideas, especially from the next generation who need to be given the time and space and platform.
Will Wheeler be the only leadership change? What about Scheifele, who sure sounded like a guy who wanted a change of scenery at the end of last season but has now walked some of that back? Does he continue to serve as an alternate, with two seasons left on his contract? Stay tuned.
It says here Morrissey, Ehlers, Connor, Lowry and Dubois (if he elects to sign here long-term) should all be considered for letters. Make one the captain — Morrissey would be my vote — and let the other four rotate as alternates while also seeing who else might step up in the coming seasons. The floor is now open. The room is theirs.
Wheeler should be commended for his years as captain. You won’t find a more focused, fearless leader, and he served both the organization and the community well. The Minnesota native will go down as one of the best to ever pull on the 2.0 sweater.
For everyone’s sake, however, it truly was time for a change.
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.