Blake Wheeler admits it’s been a long and humbling off-season for him and the rest of the guys who still call themselves Winnipeg Jets.
Four months have passed since the team was eliminated from the opening round of the NHL playoffs by the eventual Stanley Cup-champion St. Louis Blues. And there’s still a month go to before the re-tooled Jets muster for the official start of training camp ahead of the 2019-20 regular season.
Winnipeg has had seven more weeks of summer vacation than St. Louis — not at all what Wheeler and the rest of the organization had counted on. Not when expectations were sky-high following a stellar 2017-18 season that featured a pair of playoff series triumphs and a spot in the Western Conference final.
Wheeler said Tuesday that while he’s tried to savour every additional moment of family time, the protracted break has not been without reflection on the hollow feeling after a season of promise left unfulfilled.
"Expectations were super-high, and I just never felt our team was clicking at the same level as the year before. It took a lot out of everyone, with so much riding on it. There's this feeling that if you don’t win the Stanley Cup, you’re a complete failure. Those are tough expectations," the Jets captain said after an informal skate at the Iceplex. He was joined by a couple of Manitoba Moose regulars, blue-liner Tucker Poolman and forward JC Lipon, and the group will continue to grow in the coming weeks.
"You go into seasons not expecting to win the Stanley Cup but you want an opportunity to, and we had that last year and it didn’t work out. We’ve had a lot of time to sit around and think about it this summer. The wounds are always there on those missed opportunities and they end up scabbing over. But you don’t really forget," added Wheeler, just 10 days shy of his 33rd birthday.
"It’s hard because as you accumulate years and experience, and the years keep ticking off, you realize nobody’s career is indefinite. It’s going to come to an end at some point. For me, I’m getting closer to that part of my career than some of my teammates. I put myself into the group that wants a lot more this season. There was a lot of talk in this town about our team last year, things I didn’t like. So, I think for myself and my teammates we’re going to have a bit of a chip on our shoulder... this will be a motivated group, for sure."
Winnipeg had a solid start to the year, going 26-13-2 (54 points) at the 41-game midway point. But the squad went 21-17-3 during the second half, limping into the battle with the Blues with just three victories in its final nine regular-season games.
Word of dissension in the dressing room started rumbling (also reported by the Free Press), and the rumours picked up steam following a players-only, closed-door meeting held immediately after an embarrassing 5-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild in St. Paul on April 2 — Game 80 of the 82-game slate. Media waited more than 20 minutes for the room to open for interviews.
Wheeler, wanting to set the record straight, said the group wasn’t fractured in any way, shape or form.
"That was way off. There was no divisiveness in our room. We had a group of super-competitive guys with high expectations and there was definitely some frustration toward the end of the year that we weren’t playing the way we wanted to play," he said.
"In terms of having meetings and talking things out, the real mistake we made was doing it after a game and making you guys wait because then it becomes a story. That was my regret, doing it when we did it.
"But teams talk all the time. You have to talk things out all season long. If you ask everyone on the team last year, we were in it together. Obviously, there will be misunderstandings throughout the year with 23 different guys, but we all bought into the same goal and we just came up short."
Wheeler is set for a major pay hike this season, the first of five years with an annual cap hit of US$8.25 million. He inked a hefty contract extension just weeks before training camp last September.
He will earn $10 million this season, $6.5 million in 2020-21, $10 million in 2021-22, $6.5 million in 2022-23 and $8.25 million in 2023-24 when he’s 37 years old. By then, the contract could be an albatross on the franchise; for now, however, it’s money appropriately spent on a 12-year veteran whose performance and production have trended upward since he hit town with the rest of the ragtag bunch from Atlanta in time for the 2011-12 season.
He’s posted back-to-back 91-point seasons riding shotgun with top-line centre Mark Scheifele. During that time, he amassed 139 assists, behind only Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning (148) and Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid (142) in that offensive category.
And he doesn't anticipate any deterioration in his numbers.
"Physically, I feel better than I ever have, and I’ve said that before and I’ve meant it. It’s been the truth. People grow up and grow into themselves at different speeds and I was a late-bloomer. I didn’t grow into my body until I hit 30," said the 6-5, 225-pound father of three youngsters. "I feel great, and once you get back here and get to the facility and get into the room, you start to get that itch a little bit and get excited to see the guys again."
The cast of characters will vary greatly this fall from April’s season-ending roster. The Jets dealt defenceman Jacob Trouba to the New York Rangers and said "so long" to unrestricted free-agent forwards Brandon Tanev and Kevin Hayes as well as defencemen Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot.
Wheeler, whose clan recently spent time with the Myers’ family in Kelowna, B.C., said the sad reality is it’s virtually impossible to keep a core group together in today’s NHL.
"As much as I would have given every guy that’s not here anymore every single dollar to keep that group together, it’s just not, unfortunately, the way it happens in the salary-cap era. It’s really hard. Those guys are really close friends. It goes beyond hockey and it makes it really tough to see those guys go," he said.
"But it is what it is, and you start to get into August and you have to turn the page. There’s going to be some opportunities for some young guys to build a role, and we’ve got some veteran guys, too, that maybe didn’t get the minutes they could probably play in other organizations. I’m expecting some of those guys to come in with a chip on their shoulder, too, and that could make us a pretty hungry team this year."
Despite facing a cash crunch, Winnipeg general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff opted not to act during buy-out opportunities this summer, meaning blue-liner Dmitry Kulikov (in the final year of a deal paying him $4.33 million) will be pencilled in somewhere on the club’s three pairings. And forward Mathieu Perreault — set to make $4.125 in each of the next two seasons — likely isn’t going anywhere, either.
Wheeler said the upcoming season opens a door for several veterans to gain prominence.
"I’m looking at guys like Dmitry Kulikov, Matty Perreault, even Bryan Little and Nate Beaulieu, veteran guys that were down in our lineup at the end of last year and toward the playoffs, guys who’ve been impact players on every team they’ve ever played on who are going to get an opportunity to fill a big role this year. I’m really excited for those guys to get some more responsibility, get some more minutes, and I think those guys are going to come in excited with a chip on their shoulder," he said.
"Then from there, you sprinkle in some youth, the chance for some kids to come in and show what they can do, and there’s reason to be excited."
Jets fans would argue at this moment there’s reason for nervousness, as young scorers Patrik Laine and fellow restricted free agent Kyle Connor remain unsigned.
Wheeler is taking a wait-and-see approach to the drawn-out process for his teammates and NHL Players Association brethren.
"No matter what, I’m pulling for those guys to maximize their value as players, as teammates. You’re always cheering for your guys and fellow players to do the best they can. It’s become a part of the game today," he said. "We have a lot of young, high-profile players coming into new contracts, but we’re not unique. There’s a lot of teams that have these scenarios going on.
"Selfishly, you want those guys in your lineup from Day 1 and we’re a way better team with Kyle and Patrik.... But it’s out of our hands. We’re going to support those guys when they get back into our room, and, hopefully, that’s sooner rather than later."
Assistant 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).