Record: 52 – 20 – 10
Blake Wheeler is used to being the centre of attention, even if it's not something he's particularly comfortable with. It comes with the territory when you're the captain of a hockey team in a Canadian market.
But these days, Wheeler is looking mighty comfortable as the centre of the No. 1 line on one of the NHL's hottest teams. And that has opened up a world of future possibilities for Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice, who admits he'd consider keeping Wheeler down the middle even when his team gets fully healthy.
"If he can run another six weeks on that, then we’re going to take a real hard look at him playing centre ice," Maurice told reporters over the weekend. "Sure I’d consider it, because there are other things we can do. But I want to qualify that… let’s see in late February."
That timeline, of course, refers to when Mark Scheifele is expected to be back from the upper-body injury he suffered Dec. 27. His absence has forced Maurice to do some tinkering by moving Wheeler, one of the league's top right-wingers, to the middle. He's been flanked by a pair of talented teens in Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor.
In the five full games he's played at that position, Wheeler has scored five goals, added three assists, taken 20 shots on goal, is a plus-two and has won 30 of his 61 faceoffs. Most importantly, his team has yet to lose in regulation, going 4-0-1.
They'll look to build on that streak when they open a road trip Tuesday in Buffalo.
"I think it's impressive. It's not easy going from the wing to centre. It's a lot different. And he makes it look easy, makes it look seamless," veteran centre Bryan Little said Monday of his teammate's transition. "It's fun to watch. It looks like he's been playing that position his whole career. That's really big for us, considering Scheif is out, that he can step up and do that."
Little said there's more responsibility playing centre, especially in your own end, but Wheeler hasn't missed a beat.
"You gotta set the pace for the line. A lot of the way you enter zones, a lot of the puck movement comes from that centre. I think that's why he's successful. He's got that speed up the middle and he's a good passer and playmaker," said Little. "I think he's the perfect guy for it. When he gives advice or talks to his linemates, they listen. He's the leader in the dressing room, but he leads by example on the ice. Playing with young guys, they can watch him and see the way he handles himself."
Connor, who has put up two goals and two assists with Wheeler as his centre, said he's learning every day from the captain.
"He's been great. It's a testament to him. You can throw him in any situation on the ice. He kills penalties, plays power plays. He doesn't look out of place. He's been great for us," Connor said Monday.
Wheeler has made it abundantly clear this year he doesn't want to talk about any of his personal accolades or accomplishments, preaching a "team-first" mentality on a frequent basis. And so it was no surprise when he shrugged off any praise Monday and said he'll play wherever his coach tells him to.
"You just want to do your best. It's a little bit different, but I've had enough experience with it in the past to know a little bit about what to do," said Wheeler. "I think we're trying to eliminate multiple mistakes. Mistakes are going to happen, especially in the defensive zone. It's typically the second or third one that ends up in your net."
Maurice said Wheeler's adjustment has gone even smoother than he expected, but pointed to the fact his captain is getting to touch the puck a lot more. That may account for why he's suddenly firing so many shots on net, with many of them going in. Wheeler had nine goals in his first 38 games on the wing, and now five in five games at centre.
"I think when you have the puck on your stick, it's a good feeling regardless of where you are on the ice. You want to get as many touches as you can," said Wheeler.
Following last Friday's win over Buffalo, Wheeler got into an interesting exchange with the media when asked if he had a preference for staying at centre or moving back to the wing when Scheifele returns.
"You think that’s something I would share with you, regardless? Probably not. Certainly, there will be a discussion at some point, but like I said, wherever it is decided that I can play to help us best win, that’s where I will go and do my best," he said.
A follow-up question was asked: is he enjoying his current role?
"We’re winning, man," was the response.
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.