It was the Winnipeg Jets’ version of lightning striking twice last week. For stretches of games versus the Kings and then the Calgary Flames in the Heritage Classic, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler found themselves on different lines.
That may not sound like a big deal, but in Winnipeg it’s akin to a unicorn sighting.
In fact last season, even as the Jets struggled down the stretch, Wheeler and Scheifele were split up just once. That happened in the third period of a 7-1 blowout loss to the Colorado Avalanche in February.
For a coach who pulls out the line blender as often as Paul Maurice, the Scheifele/Wheeler duo have remained almost entirely unaffected. Like those solid chunks of fruit in your smoothie impervious to the slicing and dicing around them.
And yet turnover on the top line is quite common, bordering on constant, due to the spinning triangle of wingers cycled in and out. Start with Nikolaj Ehlers. Next up Patrik Laine. Now here comes Kyle Connor. And the rotation goes on and on as it has since last season and beyond.
It’s no surprise that at least one of those players finds it frustrating. Laine said as much during the summer, touching on his lack of time on the top unit. Also frustrating must be the manner in which those demotions happen; the change often based not on performance but as a move to mix things up. Think of it as changing a spark plug when the engine sputters.
That was the case when Ehlers lost his spot on the top line despite leading the team in scoring. It happened to Laine last week, at a time when he was leading the team in scoring.
Meanwhile, Wheeler has struggled to find his form and is sixth in team scoring behind both players. So why is he impervious to these line changes?
Yes, Maurice broke his top duo up last week, but that amounted to a handful of shifts; hardly enough to gauge this team’s capabilities when splitting its traditionally strongest play drivers.
Now, Scheifele and Wheeler are veterans, leaders on this team, and proven stars usually in the NHL’s upper echelon of point producers. That’s earned them the coach’s trust and a right to try and push through slumps with big minutes. But as the Jets struggle to find their way, what’s wrong with exploring new combinations that would be opened up with a split?
Other teams do it. Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are broken up from time to time. Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan were on separate lines for Calgary the past two games. The Chicago Blackhawks won Cups with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on different units and uniting them when needed.
Maurice has his reasons. He said at the beginning of the season the underlying numbers are what he looks to when planning his line combinations. “You can go through and do your expected goals model and take a look at the effect of the team on all the different combinations you run and the answer to why I run them the way I do is in there.”
At this stage, it’s hard not to ponder what the unexpected would do for the Jets.