With all the excitement about Mark Scheifele likely returning to the Winnipeg Jets lineup tonight, it brings up the question of what to do when all the team’s centres get healthy.
Should Blake Wheeler return to his regular right-wing spot or stay in the middle, where he’s been since Scheifele went down in late December?
The old adage about icing a squad that’s strong down the middle being the best way to build a championship team has a number of fans believing Wheeler should stay at centre.
With everyone healthy — Matt Hendricks and Adam Lowry are currently out — the Jets could have Scheifele, Wheeler, Bryan Little and Lowry as their pivots. No doubt, an enviable group.
Adding Mathieu Perreault, Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor, Jack Roslovic, Nikolaj Ehlers and Joel Armia to Scheifele, Wheeler and Little gives you three lines that can produce offence on any given night.
Lowry, Andrew Copp and Brandon Tanev (currently injured) were a strong shutdown line and could be reunited. Marko Dano might slot in here as well.
If the Jets added a forward or two via trade, this would be quite the collection. It also might lessen the price the Jets would have to pay for a centre, as comparable wingers are usually cheaper.
They’ve been winning with sophomore Laine and either of the rookies, Connor or Roslovic, playing with Wheeler — it’s tough to argue with success.
However, moving from one’s natural position often isn’t easy on a player, particularly when you move from the wing into the middle.
The hardest part, to me, would be the defensive zone changes in various situations. You’re no longer just making sure your point man (or high guy above the slot if the puck is on your offside) is covered when the opposition has the puck. It’s not that difficult to get into position for an outlet pass when your team gains possession.
This is obviously dependent on the system, but it’s much less complicated than playing centre.
For me, as a defenceman, knowing what the centre was going to do was imperative — faceoffs were important, but this reached into numerous situations.
Draws often turn into scattered play, where you need to have a both a coverage strategy and one to exit the zone. In most cases, you need to have the centre supporting wherever the puck is.
That’s a long way from a winger looking to take off for a breakaway pass when your team grabs the puck.
There are too many other things to go into here, but I have an immense appreciation of what Wheeler has done.
While he’s kept producing points, some underlying numbers have been less impressive. However, I give him the benefit of the doubt due to the youngsters he’s played with while at centre.
Those same stats have some similarities to the ones he had with Scheifele earlier this year, yet they were lighting it up on the scoreboard.
For me, Wheeler’s centre role is similar to Little playing with Ehlers and Laine earlier this season, with him having to make sure he was covering up for the young, offensive wizards but seeing his own numbers suffer.
With Perreault joining and revitalizing Little and Ehlers, that line has taken off. If Wheeler had the benefit of Perreault on his wing, his possession numbers and scoring chances likely would have jumped, as almost everybody’s do when playing with Perreault.
All things considered, I think Wheeler is a good centre, but I don’t consider him one of the NHL’s best centres.
On the other side of the coin, I do put him in my top-five wingers in the league.
Why is Wheeler so much better on the wing?
Obviously his speed helps with the extra open ice he gets there, and he’s an absolute bull whether rushing with the puck or forechecking.
A centre is often following the play after he’s recovered the puck and moved it forward. It doesn’t allow as many opportunities for Wheeler to unleash his best attributes.
While he possesses those power moves, his vision and ability to use his intimidating speed often causes hesitation among opposing defencemen. A quick stop and pass to a teammate who’s in a scoring position is more easily done down the wing.
His ability to make adjustments is excellent. While it’s not five-on-five play, I love how he confuses the opposition’s penalty-killing unit enough to get a pass through to Laine on the power play, who has been ripping it.
Maurice has his preferred penalty-killing units, but I liked the Wheeler-Scheifele combo earlier this year. Always a threat to score, they also pressured the opponent’s power play a bit, even when the Jets were still in sit-back mode. There’s more pressure being applied by this unit now, so it should get even better.
As Roslovic has been keeping Scheifele’s spot warm in man-advantage situations with Wheeler, this duo makes line continuity much easier. Laine is also on that unit and the trio has practised together as a line.
I’m still in wait-and-see mode as far as what Maurice will finally do with the captain.
It’s possible he just wants Scheifele to be comfortable in his first game back. If they need assistance down the lineup, he can always flip Wheeler back to the middle until help arrives.
While there’s a decent argument to keep him at centre long-term, it’s an easy choice for me.
I’m taking an elite winger over a good centre all day long.
Chosen ninth overall by the NHL’s St. Louis Blues and first overall by the WHA’s Houston Aeros in 1977, Scott Campbell has now been drafted by the Winnipeg Free Press to play a new style of game.
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