Good morning, folks.
After playing 11 very solid periods of hockey — going back to last week’s 5-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers — the Winnipeg Jets spit the bit on Monday night versus the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It was the oddest of occurrences. From my vantage point — that would be my couch, by the way — the Jets clearly looked to be the better team through 40 minutes of play. The home team was making crisp passes, winning every puck battle, and producing solid scoring chances against Penguins goalie Tristan Jerry.
And despite heading to the second intermission tied 1-1, I anticipated the local squad to storm out for the third period and send their eastern interlopers back to Pennsylvania with a loss to finish up their road trip to Canada.
Nope. The Jets were flat from the outset of the final frame, made some errant passes in the neutral zone and just like that the Penguins were sending pucks tape to tape, winning all the battles and producing one scoring chance after another on Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck.
The switch had definitely flipped.
Mike McIntyre and I were texting after the game — which I’m sure you know the Jets lost 3-1 — and were hard pressed to pinpoint the turning point in the contest. It seems, however, lots of other folks around town had the answer: it was Blake Wheeler’s fault.
In fact, from the hand-wringing when the Jets got off to a slow start to the season, and any other time the team hasn’t played up to snuff since then, the No. 1 punching bag for folks upset about the team’s play is in fact the captain — with a close second being head coach Paul Maurice for how much he plays the captain.
It’s bunk to me. Any woes the Jets have had this season — and there have been very few since the stalled start — have very little to do with the captain, or the coach’s handling of said captain.
The PoMo-Wheeler dynamic is not a unique one.
There’s always that one employee who seems to get more rope than the rest of us. Grrr.
The boss seemingly goes to bat for them ahead of everyone else. Double grrr.
Paul Maurice has such an employee. And yes, his name is Blake Wheeler. I heard you grrr.
I get it. What I generally forget when it comes to this type of situation, is that the extra grace has almost always been well-earned — and no player on the current roster has spilled more blood, sweat and tears for the Jets on and off the ice than the longtime captain.
The guy owns a home here, he raises money for folks here; it would not surprise me if some day he is the team’s GM — or at least the assistant GM to Paul Stastny. That would, of course, be assuming Chevy ever retires.
Listen, I’ve been critical of Wheeler many times in this space — mostly for his dealings with the media.
But the one thing I have never questioned is his performance on the ice, in particular his effort.
He might never score points like he used to, but his willingness to try to do that doesn’t look to have diminished one bit. And while those results might not show up on the scoreboard, they still set the tone for this team: if the old guy with the C on his sweater is willing to lay it on the line every shift, it sets a standard for the rest of the guys on the bench.
Frankly, if I were the coach — I’m not, by the way — and my team wasn’t playing the way I thought it should be, Wheeler is exactly the guy I’d send over the boards.
I’ll tell you what: if every other Jet had exerted themselves to the degree that the captain had in the third period on Monday night — he was making plays at both ends of the ice — no way they lose that game.
To me the Wheeler conundrum is simple: expectations likely need to be altered.
In September of 2018, he signed a five-year, $41.25-million extension with the Jets. At the time he was 32 years old, had led the Jets with a career-high 91 points (23 goals, 68 assists, good for ninth in NHL scoring) the previous season and just a few months had passed since the Jets had reached the conference final.
While Wheeler had 91 points again the next season, the final year in his previous contract that paid him $5.6 million, since getting the hefty raise to $8.25 million a season, he has registered 65 points, 46 points in last year’s shortened season, and just five points — including zero goals — in 13 games this season.
Has Father Time finally caught up with him? Is he still recovering from a bout with COVID that kept him locked up in a Minnesota hotel room?
There was a time last season when the Wheeler wailing had reached new decibel levels. We later found out he had been playing with cracked ribs. Some said he should haven’t been in the lineup if he was injured, but Maurice continued to send him over the boards. Then, like now, the Jets were winning more often than not.
When Wheeler signed his contract extension he said: "With where I’m at in my career, with my age, I feel like my best years are ahead of me," Wheeler told reporters shortly after signing the new deal. "I wanted to give those years to this organization and hopefully push this team to the championship levels."
He might not dish out those seam passes on the power play like he once did and he might not streak down the right wing with the power forward moves he used to, but it’s my opinion there is still no player on the team who has more influence in potentially pushing this team to championship levels — and if that proves true then the first part of his statement will be true as well.
So why didn’t the Jets win on Monday?
Simple: yes, Blake Wheeler didn’t score — but only Dominic Toninato did.
As always folks, you can reach me by replying to this mailing or by sending me an email here.
• On the road again: Mike McIntyre is in Columbus, where the Jets play the Blue Jackets tonight, and in his latest column, he looks at how the two franchises are forever linked by last year's blockbuster trade;
• Well is dry: Jeff Hamilton took in Jets practice in Winnipeg on Tuesday and has a story on how the team has recently lacked finish around the net, scoring just four goals in their past three games, despite recording 117 shots;
• On the job: Mike Sawatzky has a yarn on Brian Dobie. Less than a week removed from a devastating defeat in the Hardy Cup final, the head coach of the University of Manitoba Bisons football team has moved on and he's looking ahead. But despite approaching his 27th season as head coach and his 69th birthday, Dobie isn't making retirement plans just yet;
• Road to Beijing: And finally, Jason Bell has all the details from Day 4 of the Olympic curling trials in Saskatoon.
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The Winnipeg Jets have tumbled out of a playoff spot, thanks to a tough two weeks in which they've won just once in their last seven outings. Free Press sports editor Steve Lyons and columnist Mike McIntyre look at where it's suddenly gone wrong, including an alarming power outage from the club's potent forwards. The duo discuss how the struggling squad can potentially shake the slump as they skate into December. Turning to football, they preview this Sunday's West Division Final between Winnipeg and Saskatchewan and whether the heavily-favoured Blue Bombers should be worried at all. Other topics include Mike shopping for a new used car, and Steve enjoying a musical trip down memory lane.Read More