The Winnipeg Jets are sitting third in the All-Canadian North Division of the NHL with a 6-3-1 record following Tuesday’s hard-fought 3-2 win over the Calgary Flames. But that didn’t eliminate some poking and probing from those covering the team, wanting some clarity on why Captain Blake Wheeler played a season-low 13:14 in the victory. Or why the 13-year veteran is a team-worst -9 through those first 10 games.
Especially in a week that saw Wheeler and longtime linemate Mark Scheifele split up — in part because Head Coach Paul Maurice admitted to not being “overly excited about the results of Kyle, Mark and Blake” prior to re-arranging his top two lines going into the Calgary series.
Instead of answering questions, Maurice instead provided a sturdy endorsement in favour of the undisputed leader of his team. And he didn’t spare his own critique about the deep dives into Wheeler’s performance, or the analytics as well. “God they do a horsesh–t job of telling you what five guys do,” Maurice began. “The goal that you’re beakin’ him on last night — he got put in a real tough spot by a horses–t backcheck by somebody else. I’m sensitive to it because I’ve been in awe of this guy since I got here. His work level, he’s unimpeachable. His character, and how he runs that room and how he plays — 11 points in 10 games. I’m not so much protective of Blake Wheeler. I’m more protective of the Winnipeg Jets.
“You get a guy in your town that plays that hard, and is such a fine, fine leader and a fine man…”
“Let’s be real careful. If his plus-minus number isn’t what you want, he’s pro-rated out at about 88 points. We’re 10 games in, we’re 6-3-1. You’re beaking my captain — I’m offended by it.”
Maurice made a comment following Tuesday’s win that did raise some curiosity, to say the least, when he mentioned he would answer questions about Wheeler in two or three weeks. And the veteran forward dispelled any notions during his Zoom call availability on Wednesday that he is playing hurt, or at least being hindered by something. “I mean if I’m in the lineup, you should take that as me being a hundred per cent,” answered Wheeler to the question if he was playing through something.
“I mean I guess I do understand you guys love to focus on me, but we got a lot of really good things going and I don’t want to bring a negative vibe into what we have going.
“It’s a really good thing we got going in our room and if I’m on the ice and I’m in the game, feel free to treat me as if I’m a hundred per cent.”
It should be noted that Wheeler wasn’t the only Jets player whose ice time took a nosedive in Tuesday’s victory. Linemates Kyle Connor and Paul Stastny went from 22:16 to 16:24 and 21:29 to 13:54 respectively. Wheeler and Stastny each had 21 shifts in the game, two less than Connor.
The captain said those were coaching decisions. “I don’t call the names, whose up on the bench, when it’s my turn to go out there. Paul deploys us, I go out there and play. I would attribute that to what I’ve been kind of saying the entire time — we have a lot of guys playing really well right now,” explained Wheeler when asked about his own reduction in 6 1/2 minutes of ice time from the night before. The 13:14 was his lowest total since March 23, 2015 when he played just 11:33 in a 4-1 Winnipeg victory at Edmonton.
“The way the game was going and the way our team was playing, and the way some guys were going, the minutes were a reflection of that.”
Andrew Copp led all Jets forwards with 23:41 of ice time in the win over Calgary. Mark Scheifele was next at 20:06.
The Jets and Flames meet again Thursday night at 7 p.m. at Bell MTS Place. After that Winnipeg has a four-day break which is expected to culminate with the much-anticipated debut of Pierre Luc-Dubois and the return of defenceman Tucker Poolman and center Nate Thompson when the schedule resumes the following Tuesday on Feb. 9 at the Saddledome.
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