by Watson Scott Swail

The Captain of the Winnipeg Jets, Blake Wheeler, has been a consistent and important player for the Winnipeg Jets/Atlanta Thrashers since 2011. Over 12 NHL seasons, “Wheels” has averaged an impressive 63 points per season, with two of his best seasons coming in the past three years. And during that time, he has been a +90 over his career, with only two seasons where he was a negative +/-.

But this year has been different. While Wheeler has posted a still impressive 14 points in 15 games, his +/- is a -10, one of the worst +/- levels in the league. Last night’s win against Edmonton (6-5) kind of illustrates the Wheeler story; he had an assist and a goal for two points but still managed to post a -1, meaning he wan on the ice for 3 of Edmonton’s 5 goals, or 3 of 4 even-strength tallies. While some people don’t value a +/- rating, that last point tells a lot about Blake Wheeler this year. His 5-on-5 play has only accounted for only 6 of his 14 total points, meaning that 8 have come on the power play. Your numbers better be good if you are getting first team PP, and his are. But his 5-on-5 play has been pedestrian at best.

To put it bluntly, Wheeler’s offense has been limited and his defense atrocious. One can argue that moving around the lines hasn’t helped his play, but the same goes for everyone else on this team, given the loss of Laine, the waiting for Dubois, and now two games with Dubois out with an injury, this is a challenge to mixing up the lines. Two games ago, Wheeler was on the ice when the Senators scored with 12 seconds left to win the game. Some of us were scratching our collective heads to see Scheifele, Connor, and Wheeler on the ice at the end of the game: not exactly the defensive Mecca of the Winnipeg Jets. Coaching plays into Wheeler’s play to an extent.

The question for the Jets is this: what do you do about Blake Wheeler?

My gut tells me that Wheeler is simply too good a hockey player not to bounce back. The question remains is how can the coaches get him out of this funk? Wheeler’s issue, as mentioned, is partially offense and certainly defense. So, what is going on with the defense when Wheeler is on the ice that puts him at a -10 so early in the season? Part of it might be the continued practice of putting him on the top line with Mark Scheifele. Both of these players are great, but both have serious defensive issues. While they have played well in the past together, perhaps other teams see the defensive weaknesses when they play better. For starters, keeping them on different lines might be a partial solution. Regardless, they play on the first PP shift, anyway, so they won’t be strangers. Still, Scheifele is a 0 +/- and Wheeler is -10. Hmmm.

It seems that Wheeler can make things happen when he is close to the opposition net. When he stands in front of the goalie, things happen. Last night he had a nice deflection in a blue line blast from Morrissey. And yes, Scheifele had an assist on that one. I know. So perhaps how Wheeler is used needs to change a bit.

If I had all the answers I’d be coaching, and I’m smart enough to know I can’t carry a cup of coffee for these guys. However, I know enough to understand that something is off with Wheeler’s game. Perhaps it is luck, but I’ve seen him coughing up pucks and standing still on defense. It raises red flags: none of these typify top-shelf hockey. Wheeler is under contract for another three years after this season at $8.25M/year. Unless he is traded (I’m not sure who will pay that kind of cash for him right now, especially under a tight cap), he will continue to serve as Captain of the Winnipeg Jets. Twelve years in and 34-years old, he is on the backside of his NHL career, but certainly has more in the tank.

Bottom line: for the Jets to be successful, Wheeler needs to get back on his game.