No, the ship is not sinking. But the Winnipeg Jets definitely took on some water last season, and have continued to do so over a turbulent summer that’s been filled with change.
Which is why it was noteworthy to see the captain, Blake Wheeler, appear to throw some life rafts in the direction of fans and critics alike this week by doing — and saying — all the right things as he prepares for a most-important campaign ahead.
Yes, talk is ultimately cheap. And actions will always speak louder than words. But the fact Wheeler was the first regular back in town and skating daily at Bell MTS Iceplex, more than three weeks out from the start of training camp, should be taken as a positive sign. In essence, holidays are over. It’s time to roll up the sleeves, get back to work to chart the next course.
Wheeler is setting an example, as good leaders do. And make no mistake: for any faults he might have, there’s no question Wheeler was born to wear a C on his chest.
Could he use some more help? Most definitely. I believe young players such as Josh Morrissey and Adam Lowry should be added to the leadership group, which currently consists of Wheeler and his two assistants, Dustin Byfuglien and Mark Scheifele. But Wheeler is the right guy to be on top.
His work ethic is off the charts. He truly gives a damn. He raises the play of those around him. And you’ll never see him take a shift off.
It wasn’t always that way, of course. Wheeler, who will turn 33 next week, admits to being a late bloomer who took longer than many players to both physically and mentally mature. But he’s blossomed into one of the elite right wingers in the game over the past few years, which is why general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff had no hesitation signing him to a five-year extension worth US$41.25 million that kicks in this fall.
That’s money well spent, considering the overall value he brings to the organization both on and off the ice.
“We’ve had a lot of time to sit around and think about it this summer. The wounds are always there on those missed opportunities and they end up scabbing over. But you don’t really forget.” – Blake Wheeler
Wheeler can be ornery at times, both on the ice and with us in the media, especially when things aren’t going well. That was evident on more than one occasion last season as the squad started going south down the stretch, and the locker-room scrums were often short and pointed, to say the least.
But he was gracious with his time earlier this week as he sat down with my partner in crime on the Jets beat, Jason Bell, for an extended one-on-one chat, reflecting on what went wrong last season and what needs to change going forward.
"We’re going to have a bit of a chip on our shoulder," Wheeler said.
Get used to hearing this a lot over the coming months, folks. That’s going to serve as an unofficial motto of sorts for the road ahead, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
This group came to camp last year filled with swagger and sky-high expectations, believing success would just come naturally after going all the way to the Western Conference final the previous spring following a franchise-best 114-point season.
But nothing was easy. They now had targets on their backs. They couldn’t just flip a switch. And the end result, after a solid first half, was losing their grip on first place in the Central and ultimately bowing out in the first round of the playoffs to the eventual Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues.
Painful lessons were learned, ones which Wheeler stressed he and his teammates will benefit from.
Perhaps the window for capturing the first Stanley Cup in franchise history isn’t quite as open as it was, thanks to the departures of Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Brandon Tanev and Ben Chiarot. But there’s still a solid core here, including an enticing mix of young talent and veteran savvy that plenty of NHL clubs would love to have.
As the old saying goes, you have to learn to walk before you can run. And if these Jets are to reach the promised land, Wheeler will play an extremely big role.
"We’ve had a lot of time to sit around and think about it this summer. The wounds are always there on those missed opportunities and they end up scabbing over. But you don’t really forget," said Wheeler, who offered a bit of insight into his own mindset and how Father Time will up the urgency for him.
"It’s hard, because as you accumulate years and experience, and the years keep ticking off, you realize nobody’s career is indefinite. It’s going to come to an end at some point. For me, I’m getting closer to that part of my career than some of my teammates. I put myself into the group that wants a lot more this season. There was a lot of talk in this town about our team last year, things I didn’t like. So, I think for myself and my teammates, we’re going to have a bit of a chip on our shoulder... this will be a motivated group, for sure."
"There was a lot of talk in this town about our team last year, things I didn’t like. So, I think for myself and my teammates, we’re going to have a bit of a chip on our shoulder... this will be a motivated group, for sure."
There’s no question Wheeler can be hard on his teammates, based on the high standard he sets for himself and his expectations of others. It’s one of the reasons head coach Paul Maurice, who has a similar approach, thinks the world of his captain. And vice versa.
That hasn’t always sat well with younger players, who may not be as driven as Wheeler is at this stage of their careers. And while I’m not suggesting he become a big softie, the trick for Wheeler is to find a way to get everyone on the same page and pulling in the right direction out of the gate. That’s something veteran Mathieu Perreault told me late last season wasn’t always the case, following a closed-door meeting just a week before the playoffs began.
Wheeler downplayed reports of dissension in the dressing room, other than saying you had a bunch of "super-competitive guys with high expectations and there was definitely some frustration toward the end of the year that we weren’t playing the way we wanted to play."
Fair enough. I wasn’t expecting Wheeler to spill any state secrets, and he wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t try to portray a united front, even though they were anything but at times, with even Maurice admitting there was some "ruffled feathers" following the season.
To be honest, there was nothing going on with these Jets that winning couldn’t fix. Just look at those Blues — dead-last in the NHL at Christmas, with players fighting each other in practice, their head coach already fired, talk of blowing up the roster looming — who managed to get their act together in time for a memorable march to the Cup.
As for his own game, Wheeler said he feels "better than I ever have," which is promising, since the Jets can’t afford much of a drop in his play if they are to take another step — with internal growth and development the key to success. A third straight 91-point season might be unrealistic, but something in the range of a point-per-game would be most welcome for the team.
I’d like to see Maurice at least experiment by breaking up the normally inseparable Wheeler and Mark Scheifele to see what the lineup might look like. Perhaps try Scheifele between Patrik Laine (once he signs a new deal) and Nikolaj Ehlers, with Wheeler moving down to play with Bryan Little and Kyle Connor (once he signs a new deal). That’s a pretty balanced potential top six.
Yes, the Jets have taken their fair share of hits since they last dropped the puck. But with a highly motivated Wheeler steering the ship — a year older, a year wiser and seemingly humbled at least a bit by recent events — they’re still in very good hands.
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.