It’s the Winnipeg Jets’ version of "In Case of Emergency Break Glass."
In this case, that means splitting up the normally inseparable pair of Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. Not only will they play on different lines Friday night when the 8-7-1 Jets host the Vancouver Canucks at Bell MTS Place, they’ll do so playing the same position of centre.
Yes, you read that correctly. Wheeler, one of the more prolific right-wingers in the game over the past several seasons, is moving to the middle, at least for the time being.
"Listen, I work here. I’m willing and able to do whatever they need. Probably outside of playing goalie I’ll try anything," Wheeler said following Thursday’s practice, in which he skated on a line with Nikolaj Ehlers and Jack Roslovic.
"We’ve kind of had some unfortunate circumstances already this year. I’m just looking to help wherever I can. I’m excited about a little bit of a different challenge. Hopefully we can have some success doing it."
A head injury to Bryan Little has left a major void at centre, one which Maurice is hoping to fill with his captain. A similar move was made during the 2017-18 season after Scheifele suffered a shoulder injury and Wheeler took over the No. 1 centre position for 16 games, putting up 16 points in that span as the Jets went 11-2-3.
"What I liked about it was we survived it. I think the three of us as a line went into it with that mentality, we competed on everything, those guys helped me a ton coming back. Communication, a lot of communication. When you have three guys determined to make it work and help each other out, we were able to have some success doing it. And we won some games," Wheeler said of the experience.
In this case, Wheeler will be the No. 2 centre, as Scheifele will anchor the top line with Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor. Adam Lowry remains between Andrew Copp and Mathieu Perreault on the third line, while 19-year-old centre David Gustafsson between Manitoba Moose call-ups Logan Shaw and Joona Luoto is the new fourth line.
“Listen, I work here. I’m willing and able to do whatever they need. Probably outside of playing goalie I’ll try anything.” – Jets captain Blake Wheeler on moving to the centre position
The Jets will be looking to rebound after Tuesday’s 2-1 shootout loss to the New Jersey Devils to kick off this four-game homestand, facing a red-hot Canucks squad (9-3-3) that has been one of the early surprises of the NHL season.
"I’m excited. I think playing with Jack and Fly (Ehlers), our line can be pretty fast up and down the ice. I think there’s going to be a lot of north-south speed. I think playing in the middle, it’s going to allow me to carry the puck a little bit more, play with it a little bit more. I think those guys match where our game needs to go fly up the ice with speed, try to make our plays with speed and then from there we can open some things up, make some seam plays," said Wheeler, who has five goals and three assists in 16 games.
"You gotta be good in your D zone. I think that’s where it’s going to start for us, work our way out of that zone. Be really good defensively, coming back really hard. If we do those things, create some turnovers, there’s no reason we can’t have some fun going the other way. I think especially with a couple younger players, just make sure we’re talking a lot of dialogue. It’s a great thing. It’s tough to get Rosie (Roslovic) to shut up most of the time. That’s going to be a real asset for our line. We’ll hear a lot from him. It should be some fun, these guys are fun to play with."
Maurice said he considered a number of options, including moving Copp back to centre, or even Roslovic to the middle. Ultimately, he went with this route, for a few different reasons. He texted Wheeler with the idea during Wednesday’s day off and got two enthusiastic thumbs up.
"I’ve been interested in seeing Kyle, Mark and Patrik play together for a while. But I needed Patrik to kind of get his intensity game up. I think he’s done that for us this year, so I think he’s in a position to make that work. I want to see it. There’s lots of other places we can go with this, but this is the one I was most interested in seeing," said Maurice.
"I’m excited. I think playing with Jack and Fly (Ehlers), our line can be pretty fast up and down the ice. I think there’s going to be a lot of north-south speed." – Blake Wheeler
"Blake’s a really good low centre in our end. He’s physically strong. In terms of dealing with maybe an inexperienced back end, he’s the right guy for me to come in the middle, so I can keep Lowry in the middle with Copp, which makes them a little heavier line and structures our game all right."
Scheifele has no doubts the other half of the team’s dynamic duo will thrive in this new role.
"He did a really good job when I was injured and he went into the middle. I think just getting your timing down is the biggest thing. It’s a lot different than wing. You just got to get your timing down kind of all over the ice. Blake’s a smart enough guy to figure that out and he’s done it before, anyways. It will be a quick transition for him," said Scheifele.
"Obviously, we need other guys to step up when a key guy like Bryan goes down. We need everyone to step up a little bit and push a little more. That’s on all of us."
Wheeler was doing some extra faceoff work during Thursday’s practice, taking on Lowry in one-on-one battles in the dot as assistant coach Todd Woodcroft dropped puck after puck.
"I’ve played with him as a centre before. And he’s not as bad as he thinks he is. It’s a great line that they put together there. In practice we had some chemistry out there. Everyone’s played together at least once. We’re excited and we’re going to use our speed as much as we can, because I think that’s the strength of all three. We’re excited for it," said Ehlers.
"In practice, for example, in three-on-twos, I know there’s not a lot of three-on-twos in hockey, but he comes with that speed, takes it up the middle, passes it to one of the sides and goes straight to the net. He’s a good skater. We’re going to try to use that as much as we can."
The Jets host the Dallas Stars on Sunday afternoon and the Colorado Avalanche on Tuesday to wrap up the homestand.
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.
Updated on Thursday, November 7, 2019 at 10:32 PM CST: Adds photos and pullquotes