Jets’ Wheeler on being under-appreciated: ‘I’ve done it for a long time’

Winnipeg Jets' Blake Wheeler does what he does best, setting up Patrik Laine to score on the power play from his sweet spot.

You have to admit, Blake Wheeler has a point.

With his Winnipeg Jets surging a third of the way through a season in which they were supposed to crater in the Western Conference, there’s a fair chance Wheeler hasn’t been too surprised with the doubt aimed at his squad early on in 2019-20. It’s the same doubt that’s followed him throughout his career.

The Jets captain reflected on that lack of faith in a recent wide-ranging interview with The Athletic’s Murat Ates published Wednesday.

“The numbers, consistently, are there. I play in games and I feel like, ‘Man, I dominated that game.’ And then nobody’s talking about me. Nobody’s putting me in the category of player that I believe that I’m in,” Wheeler told Ates. “…It’s not something where it’s ruining my day but it’s like, ‘Come on, are you [expletive] kidding me?’ A lot of guys get a lot of ink and have gotten a lot of ink in the past and I’m like, ‘Hey, man. The numbers have been there for a long time.’

“And even now, the past — I don’t even know how many years — there’s three or four players in the league that have had better numbers than me and those are Hall of Fame–type players and people laugh when they see me on that list.

“It’s like, ‘Yeah, I’ve done it for a long time. You can show me a little love, too.’”

It’s a fair critique. The veteran winger has been among the best playmakers in the game for the past handful of years, routinely ranking near or at the top of the league’s assists pile.

And it’s been that way for a fair while.

The winger’s first breakout campaign came in 2011-12 — his first year in Winnipeg (after a brief stint in Atlanta before the team transitioned to Manitoba), and the first year he topped the 60-point plateau. Since that season, Wheeler’s ranked among the top 10 scorers in the game, sitting eighth over those eight seasons with 569 points, behind only Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel.

Cut out the noise and whittle that down to even-strength points, and Wheeler’s even higher on the list, with only Kane, Crosby, John Tavares and Brad Marchand above his 388 points — a crew of names most hockey fans would likely view as on another level than the longtime Jet.

In 2015-16, the Plymouth, Minn., native took another step into the league’s upper echelon, nearly touching 80 points for two seasons before posting a pair of dominant 91-point efforts last season and the one prior.

Over the four-year span since then, there’s no question Wheeler’s been among the most potent scorers in the game. He’s seen just four NHLers — all bona fide, undeniable superstars — rack up more points, with only Kane, Nikita Kucherov, Connor McDavid and Crosby besting Wheeler’s 334 points through 327 tilts.

He also hit those marks in a period of his career that most would assume would bring a decline — the Jets captain was 29 years old when that 2015-16 breakout came. He was 31 and 32 years old for each of those 91-point seasons. The next highest scorer over 30 years old last season? Ovechkin, who finished just below Wheeler with 89.

The wily veteran’s most significant offensive contributions have come in the playmaking department, however. Since that 2015-16 campaign, only one NHLer has posted more assists than Wheeler, and it’s arguably most dominant offensive force in the sport: McDavid.

Taking it down to primary assists to strip out the secondary helpers, Wheeler ranks as the gold standard over these past few seasons in Winnipeg. Since 2015-16, he’s led the league with 118 primary helpers, topping even the game’s best facilitators.

For perspective, the player who’s best kept pace with him over that span, in terms of directly setting up teammates for success, is Kane, who sits with 10 fewer primary helpers since 2015-16, having played one more game.

The award cabinet might be more bare than the company he keeps on the league’s scoring charts, but all things considered, there’s no denying Wheeler’s place among the game’s best.

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