Wheeler still a respected voice as Jets’ leadership group set to expand

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Blake Wheeler is the only captain Josh Morrissey has ever played for during his NHL career. The Winnipeg Jets defenceman broke into the league in the fall of 2016, just a couple weeks before Wheeler was handed the C.

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Blake Wheeler is the only captain Josh Morrissey has ever played for during his NHL career. The Winnipeg Jets defenceman broke into the league in the fall of 2016, just a couple weeks before Wheeler was handed the C.

So, when news broke earlier this month the Jets would be shuffling the deck with the leadership group, resulting in Wheeler being stripped of his letter, Morrissey was stunned. Like any good teammate, he felt for Wheeler, while appreciating what he’s done and will continue to do for the organization.

“He’s been a great friend and a great teammate, so it was emotional for myself and for other guys around the room because I have a ton of respect for him. It was tough,” Morrissey said Thursday, following the first on-ice session of training camp. “At the same time, I think (Wheeler), the way that he’s handled everything has been just first class and we’re not so concerned about all of that kind of stuff.

Blake Wheeler listens to new head coach Rick Bowness during the opening day of Jets training camp Thursday in Winnipeg. (John Woods / The Canadian Press)

“We’re concerned about bringing our best on the ice and trying to take a step forward from last season. You can read into whatever message that sends, but whether (Wheeler) is wearing the C or not, he’s the leader of our team and he’s a leader in our locker room. We’re trying to have a great camp and really have a great season and become a playoff team again. I’m not really reading into anything too much.”

Other players, such as goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, preferred to distance themselves from the move, claiming it’s a management and coaching staff decision and not on the players. And while there might be a vacancy at captain, it doesn’t change the focus heading into the season.

“I don’t really want to answer any questions about that because that’s on them. I think you can ask them their thoughts and their mindset behind it,” Hellebuyck said. “I think we’re coming in here with the same mindset. We all gotta be better and our details gotta be right and we all gotta be a team in here, and so far it feels great.”

The decision to remove Wheeler as captain was made by new head coach Rick Bowness, who did so after spending part of the summer talking to players. Bowness, who was hired in early July, will also seek out new options for alternate captains, which will be determined over the next few weeks of training camp.

It’s expected that Morrissey and Mark Scheifele will retain their roles as alternate captains, but will most likely be part of a rotation, with at least a couple of more players added to the mix. Bowness didn’t give a timeline on when he plans to name the new leadership group, or whether there will be a captain this season, saying only that the process will take some time.

There is a chance he could wait until next year before appointing a new captain. Either way, the move was meant to give more opportunities to players that are interested in taking on a greater leadership role.

“I think everyone in here was a little surprised by it. But it gives a lot of guys a chance to step up,” Jets forward Nikolaj Ehlers said. “I’m an older guy now. I’m 26. I don’t feel like it, but I’m ready to take a little more responsibility and I think we have a lot of guys here that are ready to take that step. To be able to have 25 guys take ownership, I think that’s going to go a long way.”

As for Wheeler, an argument can be made that this might be his greatest test of leadership, being able to step aside for other voices after six seasons of being the pulse of the room. Wheeler spoke last week about being surprised by the move, while also reaffirming his commitment to being a leader in the room, with or without a letter.

How exactly that turns out, only time will tell, though the early signs are promising.

“He is someone that comes into training camp in unbelievable condition each and every year. He’s a consummate professional,” Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said. “I expect him to have one of his best years. Certainly as a leader in that room right now, he is showing tremendous leadership. I think him and (Bowness) have a good relationship, a good solid understanding of what the expectations are. I know they’ve had many many conversations on roles and expectations.”

Injury update: Cheveldayoff gave a brief update on the health of his club, providing the status on a couple players missing Thursday.

Forward Morgan Barron suffered a minor upper-body injury during an informal team skate prior to training camp and is considered day-to-day. Forward Wyatt Bongiovanni is also expected to miss about a week following an injury while playing in the Young Stars Classic tournament in Penticton, B.C. last week.

Jeff.Hamilton@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

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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