ST. PAUL, Minn. — The season is already off to a gloomy start with two straight losses in sunny California. Now there are more dark clouds looming over the Winnipeg Jets, who learned Monday captain Blake Wheeler has been placed in COVID-19 protocol.
Wheeler, 35, is isolating away from his teammates as the Jets prepare to wrap up this three-game road trip in his home state of Minnesota. His status for today’s game against the Wild is unknown.
The hope is that this could simply be a false alarm, rather than the real deal. A further update is expected following morning skate at Xcel Energy Center, where the NHL team will look to avoid the first 0-3-0 start to a campaign since 2011.
"I don’t think that I have more for me to be able to give to you," said coach Paul Maurice.
Wheeler, like all members of the Jets, is fully vaccinated. Players are still tested on a regular basis, and there have been examples of false positives already this year where players quickly enter, then exit, protocols. There are also situations where they enter because they exhibit symptoms — Nikolaj Ehlers was such a case last year, only to be back on the ice a day later once he tested negative. And another scenario could involve being a close contact of someone who tests positive.
Wheeler hails from nearby Plymouth and still has plenty of family and friends in Minnesota. The Jets flew in on their charter on Sunday afternoon and had the rest of the day off.
Wheeler has one assist through the first two games of the year and is averaging 20:36 of ice time, which leads all Winnipeg forwards. He’s on the top line, the first power-play unit and the second penalty-killing unit. His absence loomed large at Monday’s practice.
Andrew Copp moved up to his spot on the right side along with Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor. Paul Stastny then took Copp’s spot on the second line with Ehlers and Pierre-Luc Dubois. Adam Lowry was flanked on the third line between Jansen Harkins and Kristian Vesalainen. And that left veteran Riley Nash on the fourth line with rookie Cole Perfetti and Evgeny Svechnikov.
"The mood is alright," said Ehlers, who is pointless in two outings. "We’re looking forward to the next game. We’re going to lose games this year and we’ve lost games in the past, so it’s nothing new. Of course, we would have liked a better start, but we’ll look at (Tuesday) as a new start for us and get out there and get the two points."
Perhaps most surprising was seeing Nash take Wheeler’s spot on the power play, out there with Scheifele, Connor, Dubois and Nate Schmidt.
"He’s played before. It’s all hands. It’s the right hand on that side of the ice," Maurice said of potentially putting the defensively responsible but offensively challenged Nash in that spot.
The second unit was Ehlers, Copp, Stastny, Josh Morrissey and Neal Pionk. Winnipeg is 0-for-8 so far with the man advantage this year, and plenty of time was spend Monday working on it.
"I don’t know. If we hadn’t had the chances that we’ve had the last couple of games on the power play, I’d be worried," said Ehlers. "But we’re getting the looks and the chances that we need to score goals on the power play. So it’s just a matter of putting them in the back of the net."
Pionk had been quarterbacking the top unit, but he’s now been swapped with Schmidt to give it another wrinkle.
"We had some really good chances to score. Not getting frustrated (is important)," said Schmidt. "You’ve almost got to take that baseball approach. If you fail seven times (out of 10), you’re having a heck of a good year. We’ve got some new guys moving around. That’s not an excuse, but it does take a bit of time for guys to get used to each other."
Schmidt, known for his fun, carefree ways, said he hasn’t needed to bring any extra joy to the rink despite a disappointing takeoff to the 2021-22 season.
"We look at it like we’ve still got 80 games, but at the same time you still can’t kind of wish these games away," he said.
"We play a (Central) division team. We know it’s going to be the same way against these guys all the time. It’s not going to be an easy game and it’s going to be a lot of hard ice."
Minnesota is off to a 2-0-0 start after sweeping through California with wins in Anaheim and Los Angeles. The Wild are a much different-looking team than the ones the Jets got used to facing prior to the pandemic throwing things out of whack, led by reigning rookie-of-the-year Kirill Kaprizov.
"I think it’s more the whole changeover. A dynamic player certainly coming in, the old guard is gone, right?" said Maurice.
"They’ve kind of changed style, the NHL game has changed. This was always kind of the Suter-Parise-Koivu team. That was the backbone of that group. And those guys have moved on, and they’ve got some younger players that have kind of developed. Their structure’s good."
Connor Hellebuyck, who has given up eight goals on 53 shots so far, will make his third straight start in the Winnipeg net. No changes on the blue-line are expected, meaning Nathan Beaulieu will be the lone healthy scratch.
"These games are always going to be (fun), they’re always going to be a little more like the end of the regular season and playoff-like," said Ehlers. "This building, they’ve got some pretty passionate fans, too."
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.