Contract extensions that take hold in a player’s early 30s often induce a little anxiety on the part of fans and, quite likely, the management types who offered the terms in the first place. But the way Blake Wheeler continues to break new ground, his looming deal looks like money well spent by the Winnipeg Jets.
Wheeler had an eight-game point streak snapped during Sunday’s 3-1 loss to the Washington Capitals, a setback that occurred after Wheeler scored for the fourth consecutive game in an 8-1 shellacking of Carolina on Friday.
The goals — Wheeler recently had four of them in Columbus, the first such effort of his career — are great, but it’s all about the helpers for the Winnipeg captain. Wheeler has 132 assists in 149 games since the start of last season and the only player in the league with more is ludicrous Tampa Bay Lightning right winger Nikita Kucherov (138).
The 32-year-old is on pace for an even 100 points this season, meaning he’ll set another personal best after establishing a new benchmark last year with 91. Wheeler’s four most productive seasons have come at age 32, 31, 29 and 30, a period that — not coincidentally — dovetails with the rise of his centre and running mate, Mark Scheifele.
Wheeler’s cap hit will jump from $5.6 million to $8.25 million next fall, and that number will be beside his name for five seasons. While a slide is coming eventually, I look at another big man who’s always had an assist-heavy stat line — San Jose’s Joe Thornton — and wonder if the six-foot-five Wheeler will similarly continue to produce throughout his 30s like the almost-40 Thornton did.
Another relevant Thornton precedent: From age 30 to 37, Thornton never played fewer than 78 games in a season. Wheeler has never suited up for fewer than 79 during his NHL tenure. (A final bit of symmetry: Thornton and Wheeler are both part of a mind-bending pack of talented players who left Boston in their early-to-mid 20s this century, a list that also includes Tyler Seguin and Phil Kessel. Seriously, how have the Bruins stayed so good for so long?)
Of course, there’s one major aspect to Wheeler’s career Jets fans hope will be different than what’s gone on in Cup-less San Jose. Who knows, maybe the best is yet to come in that regard, too.
Other Weekend Takeaways
• Strange, meaningless, kinda fun fact: The first two picks from two separate drafts have all been suspended by the NHL this year. Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Connor McDavid and, now, Jack Eichel have all been told to sit at least one game (Ovie’s was for skipping the All-Star Game, but play along).
Related: I guess we know what Jakub Voracek thinks of the two-game sentence he got for reverse-doinking Islanders defenceman Johnny Boychuk.
— Jakub Voracek (@jachobe) March 10, 2019
• Good ol’ Scott Hartnell, still stirring the pot in retirement. Hartnell, who was honoured by the Nashville Predators on Saturday night, let it be known he wanted Preds captain Roman Josi and Carolina’s Justin Williams to put serious effort into the ceremonial faceoff. Williams, still spunky himself at 37, was happy to oblige.
• It’s been a pretty gruesome year in Anaheim, but rapid re-tools have never been more of a reality than they are in today’s youth-driven NHL. The Ducks have always drafted well and Troy Terry — a fifth-rounder in 2015 — is the latest example. Following a point-per-game half-season in the AHL as a rookie, Terry joined the Ducks for good in late January. After notching just three points in his first 13 contests, the 21-year-old has found his footing, netting two goals and five assists for seven points in his past three outings, including a 1-2-3 performance during the Ducks’ 8-2 waxing of Montreal on Friday night.
• Speaking of the Habs, that horrendous ‘L’ in Southern California concluded a stretch in which Montreal went 5-8-1 while playing 10 of 14 on the road against some top-level competition. After spending most of the season in a playoff spot, the Canadiens are looking up at the final two wild-card berths from ninth place. The power play — a season-long issue — went three-for-37 in those 14 games (eight per cent) and if that doesn’t change in Montreal’s final 13 games, it’s hard to imagine the team playing beyond early April.
• Michael Grabner scored while his Arizona Coyotes were down a man to the Kings on Saturday, meaning five of his eight goals this year have been of the shorthanded variety.
• There are four weeks left in the 2018-19 NHL season…
Red and White Power Rankings
1. Toronto Maple Leafs (42-21-5): John Tavares’ stat line in four games since the Long Island, uh, lovefest: 2-6-8.
2. Calgary Flames (42-20-7): Matthew Tkachuk’s hat trick versus Vegas on Sunday helped push the Flames back into the Pacific lead. Can Calgary hold off San Jose and stay there to get a more favourable wild-card draw rather than seeing the Golden Knights in the 2-3 matchup?
3. Winnipeg Jets (40-24-4): Nathan Beaulieu is logging a serviceable 17:58 per night on the blue line in six games since being picked up at the trade deadline to ease the burden of losing Josh Morrissey.
4. Montreal Canadiens (36-26-7): It’s all critical now, but the Habs really, really need to make hay in the next half-dozen games. Four of those six are at home, no back-to-backs and the only playoff squad they’ll see in the set is the New York Islanders (once at the Bell Centre, once on the road).
5. Edmonton Oilers (30-31-7): Saturday’s loss to Toronto snapped a four-game winning streak that likely had to be twice that long to keep Edmonton truly relevant in the Western Conference playoff chase.
6. Vancouver Canucks (28-32-9): Just one regulation-time win in their past 17 games, but all the talk remains about better days ahead, especially with defence prospect Quinn Hughes — whose NCAA season ended on the weekend — inking his entry-level deal.
7. Ottawa Senators (23-40-6): Four points for Anthony Duclair in seven games as a Senator passes as a positive in this miserable year.
In Your Ear
On the latest edition of the Tape to Tape podcast, co-host Rory Boylen and I went deep on the Eastern Conference playoff race. We both thought Columbus was going to be the odd team out, though neither one of us said it with much confidence. Tune in next Friday for our examination of the Western Conference scene.
The Week Ahead
• The Toronto Maple Leafs get another Lightning litmus test on Monday night at Scotiabank Arena.
• Alex Ovechkin goes for career point No. 1,200 when the Capitals visit Sidney Crosby and the Penguins on Tuesday. We’d probably take another round of this in the playoffs, no?
• Big boy all-Canadian and Western Conference duel on Saturday, when the Flames visit the Jets.