December 15, 2019

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Jets soar with makeshift middle man

Winnipeg winning with Wheeler winging it at centre

Since Blake Wheeler shifted from a first-line right-winger to a second-line centre, Winnipeg has gone 8-2-0 and Wheeler put up 10 points. (Tony Avelar / The Associated Press files)</p>

Since Blake Wheeler shifted from a first-line right-winger to a second-line centre, Winnipeg has gone 8-2-0 and Wheeler put up 10 points. (Tony Avelar / The Associated Press files)

LOS ANGELES — When it comes to winning hockey games and putting up points, Blake Wheeler and the centre-ice position appear to be a match made in heaven.

Consider this: since Bryan Little was felled by friendly fire and suffered an ear injury on Nov. 5, the Winnipeg Jets had played 10 games heading into Saturday night’s road-trip wrap in Los Angeles against the Kings.

In those games, in which Wheeler shifted from a first-line right-winger to a second-line centre, Winnipeg was 8-2-0. And Wheeler had put up 10 points (one goal, nine assists).

That’s a major improvement over the previous 10-game segment, in which the Jets went 4-5-1 and a struggling Wheeler had only two points.

Must be a coincidence, right? Too small a sample size for it to be anything notable?

Well, consider that in the 2017-18 campaign, Wheeler was shifted to play centre after Mark Scheifele suffered a mid-season shoulder injury.

The Jets went 11-2-3 in the 16-game span with Wheeler up the middle — and he had 16 points in the process (five goals, 11 assists).

Add it up and the Jets have gone 19-4-3 in the 26 games Wheeler has played centre, and he is a point-per-game player in that span, with six goals and 20 assists.

All of which is why head coach Paul Maurice said earlier this week that moving Wheeler back to the wing, once Little eventually returns to the lineup, isn’t a given. Nor should it be.

The 33-year-old looks absolutely reinvigorated playing between speed demons in Nikolaj Ehlers and Jack Roslovic.

"There’s no cheat in that man’s game. I think what we’re seeing is Ehlers and Roslovic starting to understand his game. What I would say is both of those wingers have started to become really consistent in their game. And I like that line, a lot. It’s good at both ends," Maurice said after Friday’s 3-0 victory in Anaheim, which followed up an impressive 5-1 win on Wednesday night in San Jose.

As the old saying goes, if it ain’t broke...

Paul Maurice says moving Blake Wheeler back to the wing once Bryan Little returns isn’t a given. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

Paul Maurice says moving Blake Wheeler back to the wing once Bryan Little returns isn’t a given. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"I think because of how hard we’ve had to battle in the first part of the season, it’s kind of ingrained in us, it’s in our DNA now and it’s the expectation when we hit the ice every night," Wheeler said of his team’s current mindset.

Wheeler and battling hard have always gone hand-in-hand, but the captain’s willingness to do what it takes to help his team win — and do it very, very well — is clearly being noticed by his teammates.

"I think it’s one of the reasons he’s our captain. He’s willing to do whatever it takes to get a win or help the team. His natural position might be at wing, but since he moved to centre, he’s been great for us there," defenceman Neal Pionk said following Saturday’s morning skate at the Staples Center.

The top line, now without Wheeler, has continued to have success, with Scheifele skating with Kyle Connor and Patrik Laine. Throw in a hard, heavy checking line in Adam Lowry, Andrew Copp and Mathieu Perreault and the Jets have plenty of balance in their top nine.

"He’s been solid in the d-zone, obviously they’ve been clicking as of late. He’s been great in the middle and it’s been good for our team," Scheifele said of Wheeler.

Wheeler’s return to form after some early-season struggles has also helped put new life into Winnipeg’s power play, which had been the source of much concern and even experimentation earlier in the year. With the normal top group reunited earlier this week, Wheeler found Laine with a perfect seam pass in the win over the Sharks for a one-timer goal, then helped set up defenceman Pionk for a point blast against the Ducks.

"I think it just comes down to a simplicity factor, not over-thinking it and just making plays we know we can make," Pionk said Saturday of having success with the man-advantage.

Wheeler pointed to the Pionk goal as an important development. With Dustin Byfuglien out of the picture this season, the Jets haven’t had the same offensive threat on the blue line, but Friday’s power-play goal should be a good reminder to other teams.

"You’ve just got to have someone that can get it on net with some heat, squeak one in once in a while because, obviously, it keeps other teams honest. There’s a reason why (Alex) Ovechkin gets so many one-timers on the power play, because teams have to worry about (John) Carlson. It’s really important for him to really keep shooting that puck. Doesn’t always have to go in, but as long as he’s a threat up there, it makes our power play better," Wheeler said.

And, it appears, Wheeler at centre makes the team better.

As for whether a top-line reunion might be on hold when Little returns, Scheifele said it’s better to live in the present.

"We don’t know when Bryan’s going to be back, and you never know where our team’s going to be when that time comes. Better yet to focus on today and worry about that when the time comes," he said.

 

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Reporter

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.

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