ST. PAUL, Minn. — With great power comes great responsibility. And with a big, juicy salary comes increased scrutiny. Such is the reality for Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler, who finds himself in the crosshairs lately when it comes to his on-ice performance.
A four-game winless skid by the 9-6-4 club he leads, coupled with the fact he has yet to find the back of the net in 14 contests this season, is certainly adding to the angst surrounding the 35-year-old Minnesota product who will pocket US$10 million this season as part of a five-year contract extension signed in 2018.
It would appear Wheeler, never one to let the public see him sweat, is starting to feel the heat given a rather candid confession he made to the Free Press ahead of a Black Friday matinee against the Central Division-leading Wild.
"I'm nearing 1,000 games in this league and confidence is still a thing," he said Thursday following his team's skate at Xcel Energy Center. "The things that aren't going well right now are things I've had success doing since I was four years old. A lot of guys in the room are offensively gifted players. It is frustrating. I'm not going to not acknowledge that."
Now the question is what he, along with his teammates, might be able to do about it. This season has not exactly gone according to script, and Wheeler finds himself back in the same place where things started going downhill. That would be in mid-October, when he tested positive for COVID-19 the day before his team was set to finish off a three-game road trip by taking on the Wild.
Wheeler, from nearby Plymouth, would spend the next 10 days in quarantine. That unexpected pause appears to have slowed him down significantly, with just five assists on the scorecard so far. And the once-potent power play he used to run in his sleep, with sweet seam passes routinely being converted into goals, is mired in an ugly 1-for-21 skid right now.
"When you're making plays and doing all the things and you don't see it hit the net, it's no different than a jump shooter in basketball hitting the rim all of the time. It wears on you a little bit," said Wheeler. "I think what happens on the power play when it's not going well is you start thinking a little bit and when you start thinking, it slows down. When we're operating at our best, just reaction, you're feeling it, there's no thinking involved."
Coach Paul Maurice has tried to get Wheeler going, plugging him on to the top line with the red-hot Pierre-Luc Dubois and Kyle Connor a couple weeks ago. Evgeny Svechnikov, who had looked so good in that spot, was demoted. Although the new trio's underlying analytics and defensive metrics have been solid, they haven't found a lot of offensive mojo.
The whole team hasn't, in fact. Despite putting 153 shots on net in the past four games, Winnipeg has just four goals in that span, going 0-3-1. Maurice shuffled the deck in the third period of Wednesday's 3-0 loss in Columbus, putting Wheeler with Mark Scheifele and Andrew Copp. Dubois, Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers were the other big line. He made another lineup tweak on Thursday, throwing Ehlers on to the top power play unit along with Wheeler, Scheifele, Connor and defenceman Neal Pionk. And Wheeler was back to his usual spot on the half-wall.
"It's one of the strengths of my game and when you're on the power play and touching the puck as many times as I do on the half wall, it certainly changes the way you play the game," Wheeler said of everything old becoming new again.
"I think the great thing about our group is that it's a very unselfish group. We go where we're told to go and whoever is getting the puck all of the time is trying to do the best they can just knowing that you have other guys who can do the job, too. Everyone is on the same page. We're just trying to get things right here and get feeling good on the power play."
Copp and Dubois were joined by Paul Stastny, who has missed the last eight games with a bone bruise on his foot, along with rear-guards Josh Morrissey and Nate Schmidt on the second unit.
It's been interesting to see over the last three games, in which Winnipeg pulled its starting goalie for an extra attacker, Wheeler was not one of the six players — including five forwards — on the ice. Maurice, clearly recognizing the veteran is struggling a bit, has scaled back his ice time significantly. For what it's worth, Wheeler believes there's still plenty of gas left in the tank and his game will soon come around.
"The great thing about the vibe I'm getting in here is that we're talking about offence and power play, you know what I mean? Those are two things I don't lose any sleep over," said Wheeler.
"If we're chasing the game and getting ripped apart, I have a really hard time with that. We have guys (where) our role is to produce, be productive. Certainly, we speak of Kyle and Pierre-Luc, those guys have over 10 goals already this year. Those guys are guys who want to find the net. So when you're not finding the net, there's a little bit of frustration. But I haven't felt that it's affected the quality of play. That's kind of our message right now. We're going through a little bit of a dry spell, collectively, but let's not let that affect everything else."
As for coming home, Wheeler admits this visit is going much smoother. The fact it coincided with U.S. Thanksgiving on Thursday made it even sweeter.
"Survived the night. Had some interesting memories going back to that hotel," Wheeler joked about checking in in the early hours of Thursday morning after chartering in from Columbus.
Wheeler admits it was frustrating to be a spectator for the first meeting of the season between the long-time hockey rivals, one in which the Jets blew a late two-goal lead and ultimately lost 6-5 in overtime. Winnipeg had appeared to seal the victory with an empty-netter, only to have it overturned on an offside challenge. Seconds later, Minnesota tied it in regulation, then got the bonus point.
"I thought it was a great up and down, back and forth game," said Wheeler. "It's turned into a nice little rivalry. We've fielded good teams here the last handful of years, both sides have. It always seems like there's a battle for positioning in the standings and a lot on the line."
Perhaps a bit more than usual for a player who would love to be able to shake out of his swoon and silence some of the critics.
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.