With a 40-17-9 record, 89 standings points and a plus-48 goal differential, the Winnipeg Jets are the best Canadian NHL team by any measure. But on Wednesday, they are waiting for an injury update on top-line centre Mark Scheifele, who left Tuesday’s game against the Rangers early after colliding with teammate Blake Wheeler.
“It was a brutal play,” Wheeler said on Hockey Central at Noon. “I got lucky that he hit me higher on my leg. Anything lower and it could have been ugly for both of us.”
Losing a point-a-game pivot like Scheifele for an extended period at this point in the season would be a crushing blow for many teams, but the Jets are better positioned to absorb any potential loss than most. While having to play without their top centre would undoubtedly present a challenge, Winnipeg has faced it once already this season and weren’t slowed.
Scheifele was out between Dec. 27 and Feb. 9 with a suspected shoulder injury and missed 17 games, during which time the Jets motored along with a 11-3-3 record. In Scheifele’s absence, Wheeler was moved to his centre spot and posted 17 points mostly with Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor on his wings.
But Wheeler said he was never worried about the offence slowing down when he moved to centre, rather the impact it would have on the team defence as a whole.
“It was definitely a change of mindset,” Wheeler said. “I was still playing with really good players at the end of the day … the offence wasn’t what I was worried about. What gave me anxiety was being able to play in my end and being effective on faceoffs — all those little things you don’t have to do as a winger. I didn’t want to go out there and get the doors blown off; because I’m playing centre we can’t stop anyone anymore. That’s what made me nervous.”
If Wheeler has to move back to centre again, he should take solace in how effective he was at both ends of the ice the last time he was put there. Sitting eighth in league scoring with 75 points in 66 games, three shy of matching a career high, Wheeler now finds himself in the Hart Trophy conversation. And while most of his case is built around the season-long production he’s enjoyed, his value to the team in Scheifele’s absence has given his MVP candidacy even more pop.
You could easily argue, too, that the Jets are even more prepared to deal with any potential Scheifele absence now than the were two months ago. GM Kevin Cheveldayoff made a big splash at the NHL trade deadline in acquiring Paul Stastny to centre the team’s “third line” between Laine and Nik Ehlers, giving them depth down the middle most teams would be envious of. Stastny has five points in four games since joining the Jets and has brought out an even more lethal Laine, who has scored seven goals in his past three games.
“I knew when we got him he was going to be a great fit for Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers,” Wheeler said. “Those guys have so much talent and so much raw ability I think he’s just a stabilizing force for the two of them. What makes ‘Stas’ a great player is his hockey IQ, it’s so high. Anything he can bring to the table for those two guys. He creates a ton of space with Patty — you’ve seen the goals Patty’s been scoring he has so much time and space with the puck in the slot.”
Wheeler’s MVP buzz is one of the more unexpected in a crowded 2017-18 class. Drafted fifth overall by the Arizona Coyotes in 2004, Wheeler went the USHL-NCAA route and left the University of Minnesota in 2008 as an unsigned college free agent. He signed with the Boston Bruins and stepped right into the NHL.
Although his NHL career started well with a 45-point rookie season, his point-per-game rates dropped and mid-way through his third year with the Bruins, they traded him to the Atlanta Thrashers in a deal that landed Boston Rich Peverley and Boris Valabik. He played 23 games in Atlanta before the franchise up and left for Winnipeg that summer and Wheeler says the trade was a turning point in his career.
“It started when I got traded from Boston. That kind of sent shockwaves through the system a little bit,” he said. “Watching that team go to win the Stanley Cup was eye-opening. You’re so close to it and now you’re so far away from it. It forces you to look in the mirror a little bit, try to decide what kind of player you want to be, what kind of impact you want to have. … When I was traded to Atlanta and on to Winnipeg I was given a great opportunity, playing a ton of minutes, playing with good players, so it was on me to try and take that next step.”
Wheeler has become a leader on the rising Jets and in 2016 was named team captain. Signed for one more season with a $5.6-million cap hit, he’s a central part of a team deep in talent from the top of the lineup to the bottom, and many fans recognize the Jets are Canada’s best hope of breaking the Cup curse in 2018.
But there’s still work to be done before the Stanley Cup Playoffs hit. The Jets have 16 games left on their schedule and trail the Nashville Predators by six points for the Central Division lead. It’s likely Winnipeg will have home-ice advantage in Round 1 for what would be their second post-season appearance since relocating.
And although their first-round opponent is yet to be set, this mature Jets team seems set to win the franchise’s first playoff game, even in the face of injury.