by Scott Swail
In February of this year, I wrote a piece called “What to do when the “Wheels” fall off?” I wrote: “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… To put it bluntly, Wheeler’s offense has been limited and his defense atrocious.”
Nine months later, the same claim can be made. But worse. The Jets’ captain has amassed five points in 12 games and only one goal. This is far cry from the point-a-game leader we knew only a few seasons ago. Some people speculate that COVID-19 has put him off his game; others say he has been playing hurt. Well, last year he was playing hurt, too. Due to the way the NHL operates, we rarely know exactly what is going on with players in order to protect them from targeted injury from opposing teams. But Blake Wheeler’s recent play causes significant cause for concern. I said in February that Wheeler is too good of a hockey player not to bounce back. And then I wrote about the same thing a few weeks ago. I still think that, but perhaps time has imposed a brutal impact on the 6’-5” forward.
Four games ago, Jets’ coach Paul Maurice pulled out his line blender again and put Wheeler back on a line with Connor and Dubois and Mark Scheifele on the Number One with Copp and Ehlers. The team has gone 1-3 during this period. It was only two weeks ago Sportsnet celebrated moving Copp back to center as he was “flourishing.” Last night Copp, the top face off guy on the team (53.1 percent) was on the wing next to one of the team’s worst face off players, Mark Scheifele (47.0 percent).
With Stastny back, they should push him back to the top six and consider the old lines of Stastny-Copp-Ehlers and Connor-Dubois-Svechnikov, placing Wheeler and Scheifele back with Lowry until they show some type of spark. The current blender work isn’t transferring to wins, so go with what you know.
The problem is that Winnipeg isn’t playing bad hockey: they just aren’t playing well enough to be contenders. And yes, only a week ago we were celebrating them at the top of the division. And even though Winnipeg is only a point out of first place, their play isn’t reflective of that level. For instance, only three teams in the Western Division have less wins than the Jets at this point in the season, and Winnipeg has four points from OT losses. If those were considered losses (and some of us think we should go back to that), then the Jets are in the bottom of the division. Any viewer knows that some of the wins have been really ugly, so we are fortunate to remain a single point out of first place. It’s amazing, actually, given that both Wheeler and Scheifele were out and now Stastny has been out (will suit up against Columbus).
The Jets have been given a gift: they are in great standing after rough-shot play in the first quarter of the season. If they can turn it around even slightly, they should be good to go. But there is potential to go the other way, too. A team this talented can’t post a single goal and expect to win. They have posted four goals in their last three games—two losses and a SO loss. Of their 18 games thus far, the Jets posted a single goal in five of them. That can’t happen to a winning team. It really can’t happen to a team that the league looks at in awe for the scoring potential.
Last night becomes three losses in a row with a tough road game tomorrow against the Avs. Now that we see Maurice is pushing to regain the lines of yesteryear, we should all be concerned. Winnipeg has done well this year regardless of inconsistency. But there has been enough shown by Connor, Dubois, and Svechnikov to wonder why the coach would mess with that.