WINNIPEG -- Given his pain threshold, when Blake Wheeler leaves a game due to injury, eyebrows are raised and there is genuine cause for concern.
The Winnipeg Jets captain has a long track record of durability and a willingness to play through pain, so when Wheeler didn’t come out for the second period of Wednesday’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, it was such an unusual sight.
In the 10 seasons since relocation, Wheeler has missed only six games -- an astonishingly low number when you consider how hard he plays.
Wheeler took a high stick from Maple Leafs forward Pierre Engvall that resulted in a minor penalty, but he came out for the power play, so the injury was not related to that play.
The exact nature of the ailment is unknown, which means there’s truly no way of knowing the significance -- at least not yet.
“He’s a rock for us. He does so much,” said Jets centre Mark Scheifele. “He’s our heart and soul. So, to see him not come back is tough.”
Earlier this season, Wheeler did his best to play through an undisclosed injury and Jets head coach Paul Maurice provided a passionate defence of his play and his leadership.
Wheeler’s value stretches well beyond what ends up on the scoresheet - and he’s produced plenty of offence during his tenure.
“Obviously he’s the leader of our team, he’s the heartbeat of this team,” said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey, who scored the lone Jets goal on the power play. “He’s been in this organization for a long time, that guy for us. Aside from his obvious talents and what he does for us on the ice, he’s the heartbeat of our team. Not having him out there is tough and it sucks. We’ve played without him before. I don’t know what’s going on with him, I haven’t heard anything.
"At the end of the day that stuff happens and you have to respond. But when you see your leader go down, your captain, the guy who embodies everything that we want to be here, it’s tough.”
Wheeler has 10 goals and 26 points in 37 games this season and recently was put on a line with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Paul Stastny as Maurice was looking to test out a new combination.
“You need to get through these games with an idea of what changes could you make to your lines when you play different teams when you get into a series and something isn’t working,” said Maurice. “That’s what the regular season is all about. Getting to figure out how you need to make adjustments with your team to deal with, as it stands today, either Toronto, Edmonton or Montreal. So that’s the learning process that we’re trying to go through right now.”
The tinkering figures to continue for the time being, depending on how long Wheeler might be sidelined.
In the short term, it likely opens the door for Jansen Harkins to jump into the lineup.
Harkins, who has been limited to 12 games this season and hasn’t played since Feb. 19, has been waiting patiently for his opportunity and now it’s a matter to find out how the pieces might best fit.
Initially, moving Andrew Copp back into the top-six probably makes the most sense since he’s already been used in that role this season.
Mathieu Perreault could also be under consideration for a bump, though he is likely to reunite with Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton, while Harkins likely slots in on the fourth line with Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis.
No matter what deployment Maurice opts for, the Jets will be taking a do-it-by-committee approach and one of the biggest changes will come on the power play, where Wheeler plays a role as an important distributor down low and as a net-front presence.
As for this first-place showdown, the Jets came out flat and didn’t have much energy in the opening period, as the Maple Leafs built a 2-0 cushion that probably would have been wider were it not for the play of Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck.
When the Maple Leafs opened the door by taking three penalties in the second period, the Jets appeared poised to try and cut into the deficit, but instead Alex Kerfoot found himself on a breakaway and extended the lead.
For all of the discussion going into the contest about how the Jets might try and create some match-up issues with the Maple Leafs as they had last change for the first time in this season series, that aspect of the game ended up mostly being moot.
By winning the opener of this two-game series, the Maple Leafs established a bit of breathing room at the top of the North Division standings, building a three-point cushion over the Jets and four points over the Edmonton Oilers.
With five more head-to-head meetings left to go between the Jets and Maple Leafs, there’s plenty of time left to determine who might earn home-ice advantage.
“I mean you want to win, right? You want to win your division. You want to beat the best, so I don’t know if it has too much of an influence on the playoffs but it’s just something you want to do,” said Copp.
“You want to be atop your division...Last change is good but it also doesn’t dictate the game, so I don’t think there’s too much on the line in terms of having an advantage over one another.”
The biggest question coming out of Wednesday's 3-1 loss to Toronto wasn’t how the Jets would rebound in the rematch on Friday, it centred around just how long Wheeler might be out of the lineup.
Maurice did leave open the possibility that this might be an if Wheeler actually misses time situation -- and not necessarily how much.
“Just wasn't feeling right so we wanted to be careful with it,” said Maurice. “Truly, I don't know. He may be back on the ice full-on the next game. It's not COVID-related. We just wanted to be real careful with him, and he may be back and never miss a shift again. So it's wide open right now.”
The situation is fluid and very much up in the air and with the Jets not skating on Tuesday, there won’t be an update of any kind provided until Friday morning at the earliest.
Only time will tell.
The Jets desire to add a defenceman before the April 12 NHL trade deadline was nearly heightened when Derek Forbort left the game in the first period after bumping knees with Dubois after the Maple Leafs first goal.
But Forbort missed only a few shifts before coming back and finishing the game.