Unless you’re a fan of the Winnipeg Jets, you likely haven’t noticed that Blake Wheeler currently sits eighth in NHL scoring with 26 points in 26 games. That may be surprising to many people, but it shouldn’t be.
Since Wheeler joined the Jets franchise (they were the Thrashers back then), he has been an incredibly consistent point producer, to the tune of 278 points in 338 games, or a 67-points-per-82-games pace. Somehow though, Wheeler has continually flown under the radar.
One of the reasons Wheeler may not garner much attention as an excellent point producer is the way he gets those points. He’s a different sort of player than most stars.
Wheeler doesn’t get a ton of scoring chances himself, and he doesn’t attack as much off the rush as you would expect for a player who can skate like he can, but he does hit the slot with passes a bit more than average. However that isn’t where he stands out.
Wheeler creates the second-most scoring chances on the Jets, after Nikolaj Ehlers, but he does it by getting to loose pucks and winning battles more often than not. Wheeler leads all Jets players in offensive zone loose puck recoveries, and ranks seventh in the entire league.
From there, Wheeler is able to distribute the puck to the slot, or cycle it with his linemates until they find a good shot. However Wheeler has another little trick he uses to generate chances. Both Bryan Little and Andrew Ladd are very effective in close to the goal, and Wheeler has a deceptive, accurate shot from far out.
One way Wheeler is able to generate chances, is he leads the Jets in shots on net from outside the slot, where he’s often shooting to create rebounds. Ladd or Little then close on the loose puck, getting a shot attempt from a very dangerous area while the goaltender is trying to recover.
In most situations that kind of strategy doesn’t work very well, but Wheeler, Ladd, and Little have essentially perfected it, and it has led to Wheeler leading the Jets in primary assists at even strength with eight (twice as many as the next-best Jet), and leading per minute played this season, along with the previous three.
As effective as Wheeler has been over his time with the Jets, you have to wonder if he could hit an even higher level if he used his speed in transition a bit more. There just aren’t many 6-foot-5 players who can skate like he can.