WINNIPEG - If you were looking for a sign that there’s a new sheriff in town when it comes to the Winnipeg Jets, you don’t have to wait any longer.
Friday’s news that Blake Wheeler would not serve as captain this season easily qualifies as the biggest blockbuster news of the off-season.
Jets head coach Rick Bowness was sending a message and the message was loud and clear.
While Wheeler remains an important part of the team, it was time for a new voice in what the club described as a leadership restructuring in a press release on Friday morning.
Bowness shared the news with Wheeler in their first face-to-face conversation and it’s fair to say it caught the former captain off guard.
“You know, there was some surprise, I think,” said Wheeler, who spoke with reporters for just under 10 minutes. “But I’ve had time to let it sink in, so he gave me a little headway. I’ve had time to process it.”
It’s not every day that a player is stripped of the C, especially a player who has served as the face of the franchise for a good chunk of the previous 11 seasons he’s spent here and has been as productive as Wheeler has either.
It’s not uncharted territory either, just ask Joe Thornton (San Jose Sharks) or Dustin Brown (Los Angeles Kings).
And to be honest, there’s probably going to come a time not too far down the road when Wheeler realizes this move was for the best - both for him and for the organization.
Make no mistake, Wheeler’s ability to lead by example has never been in question and this move doesn’t change that one bit.
His intense and serious leadership style is something that served the Jets well at times, so it’s important to remember the organization enjoyed the most success in the 2.0 version of the franchise with him serving that role.
But the emotional toll of the responsibility has been wearing on Wheeler for quite some time, which he conceded on Friday.
“There’s nothing in my life that I’ve taken more pride in than that, outside of being a husband and being a father,” said Wheeler. “Every day since I was named captain, that’s what has gotten me out of bed. How can I be a better teammate, how can I be a better leader, how can I be a better player on the ice for this city and for this team and for this organization. So yeah, at a certain point, that can wear thin on you.”
When Wheeler was named the successor to Andrew Ladd on Aug. 31 (his 30th birthday) of 2016, the Minnesota product couldn’t have been prouder - or happier.
Although he was still bursting with pride and expressing his gratitude to serve in the role as long as he did, you got the sense that a weight was being lifted off his shoulders.
Wheeler handled the questions that came his way with class and was in vintage form, expressing plenty of raw emotion while also leaving a few things open for interpretation or to be decoded.
This is a proud individual, so losing the C was not something he expected was coming.
You can be sure it’s something he’s taken personally - and that’s a natural emotion anyone in his position would be feeling if they’d gone through a similar situation.
Nor is it something that’s going to prevent him from doing what he’s always done: show up, work hard, be productive and try to contribute to a successful season.
“I don’t need a letter on my jersey. There was a time in my career when that validation was important to me. I don’t need that anymore,” said Wheeler. “I’m really looking forward to watching a lot of the guys I’ve had a privilege watching kind of grow up step into sort of an expanded role. If you think that because of this, I’m just going to fade into the back and not be a leader on this team, you’re sorely mistaken.”
Sure, he’ll allow the leaders in the room the opportunity to grow into the role, but he’s not going to bite his tongue when something needs to be said either.
Can it be that simple after Wheeler admitted that he and the Jets openly discussed the potential for an amicable divorce this past summer in the form of a trade?
“I think, yeah, when you have a down season you’re going to have to have those conversations,” said Wheeler. “I’ve been here 11 years and it’s… you’d be crazy not to A; look in the mirror at yourself, and then also look at an 11-year relationship and say, ‘is this still in our best interest going forward?’ Ultimately we made the determination that it is, so here I am.”
That Wheeler answered the question at all and didn’t respond with ‘that’s none of your business’ was confirmation of how serious the possibility actually was.
When a follow-up question was asked about whether or not the possibility was off the table, Wheeler said it ultimately wasn’t up to him to answer since it was out of his hands.
This wasn’t Wheeler trying to reinforce the message that he wants out or waiting patiently to find out what his next destination might be.
He made it clear that he’s committed to the Jets and is going to give them everything he has for as long as he’s here.
Ultimately, Wheeler chose to express gratitude for the experience rather than focus on what had transpired.
“I just couldn’t be more grateful that I had that opportunity,” said Wheeler. “Never in my wildest dreams as a young player growing up, I never thought I would be in that fraternity of being a captain of an NHL team, so like I said, it’s what has given me so much joy and gotten me out of bed and given me a lot of drive for this organization and this city.
“I just look back and I’m just grateful that I’ve had that opportunity. That’s how I feel.”
So who will Bowness choose to give letters to once the season arrives?
Well, the new bench boss wasn’t shedding much light on the situation, at least not for public consumption, admitting at one point that when he uses the phrase ‘we’ll see’ that it actually means he’s made up his mind but wasn’t ready to share yet.
Whether the Jets rotate through four or more players with A’s during the exhibition season isn’t relevant or important.
There are enough players who have taken ownership that are ready to spread their respective wings and enhance their roles, whether immediately or over time.
Look for Josh Morrissey to remain as an alternate and he’s a strong candidate to become the next captain, no matter when the Jets decide to officially pass the torch.
Mark Scheifele is likely to keep wearing a letter as well, while Nikolaj Ehlers and Adam Lowry could join the letter carriers.
Kyle Connor is another guy who will warrant strong consideration, though as someone who prefers to remain out of the spotlight, he might fall into the category of being a guy who doesn’t need a letter to lead.
The same goes for defenceman Brenden Dillon, who carries many of the qualities that are required for the job, has played for winning organizations and is extremely comfortable in an interview setting.
Had Pierre-Luc Dubois signed a long-term contract during the offseason, he would have been an easy choice as well, but his uncertain future likely removes him from the conversation - at least for the time being.
Bowness didn’t care to shed much light on the decision-making process, nor did he divulge much about what he would be looking for in his collection of leaders, though he did leave a few important clues and said those decisions will come as they come into focus during training camp.
“We're changing. That's what we're doing. We changed the coaching, we're going to change the way we play. We're changing the way we do things. That's all. A lot of changes are good. Sometimes, changes are good,” said Bowness. “Let's take the letters right out of it and there's more people that want to take this, you can just tell. 'I want to be more involved, I want to be a bigger part of the team.' And those guys are going to come up whether they wear an A or they don't get an A
“I said it earlier. Some of the best leaders never wore an A, never wore a C. So those guys you're talking about, they will still want to get (involved) and I'm going to help them grow. And that's our job as coaches. We're going to help them grow. And whether they end up with an A or they don't end up with an A, that doesn't mean we're not going to still try to work with them to help them grow.”
What Bowness also did was put a bold stamp on the team he’s been tasked with turning around.
It will be fascinating to see how the Jets - and Wheeler - respond to that challenge.