WINNIPEG — Blake Wheeler has always been the guy the Winnipeg Jets could rely on.
For all of the challenging circumstances the organization has encountered during the past several seasons, the Jets captain has been the one constant in the lineup.
Whether the Jets were prepping for a playoff run or in the midst of a rebuild/reload, you could almost always pencil Wheeler into his familiar spot at right wing on one of the top two lines.
His durability and reliability have gone hand in hand, with Wheeler missing only six games in the 10 seasons since the Jets relocated from Atlanta - and only one game since the start of the 2015-16 - a forced absence in Game 82 in 2017-18 to get him some rest going into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The combination of Wheeler’s high pain threshold, preparation and some good fortune on the injury front led to an iron man streak of 194 games - a run that will come to an end on Thursday when the Jets open a five-game road trip against the Montreal Canadiens.
“So, Blake's not making the trip with us,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice revealed on Wednesday before departing for Montreal. “He took the elbow last game (from Ottawa Senators forward Brady Tkachuk), was fine, felt good, started to feel a little off (Tuesday) and then (Wednesday) started not feeling great. The word is concussion (but) we don't have a diagnosis on that, yet, but we're going to treat it as it is because we're obviously really careful with these things.
“So, we're not bringing him. We don't want him flying in and out until we know exactly what's going to happen here. So, he's out, I guess I'll say indefinitely, until we get this cleared up.”
Getting this situation cleared up and allowing Wheeler to get back to full health is the top priority for the Jets, who have 17 games left to go in the regular season and are locked in a race for second place in the North Division.
Wheeler’s willingness to play through an undisclosed injury earlier this season, when the Jets were waiting for Pierre-Luc Dubois to finish off his mandatory 14-day quarantine after the blockbuster trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets, sparked plenty of discussion and prompted Maurice to provide a passionate defence of his captain.
There is no optimal time for a contending team to be without its undisputed leader and there’s no doubt the Jets will miss Wheeler both on and off the ice.
Wheeler is fourth in team scoring (32 points in 39 games), averages more than 18 minutes of ice time per game and is a key puck distributor on a Jets power play that is currently operating at near peak efficiency, holding down third place in the NHL (25.9%).
He’s a player that isn’t easy to try and replace, but the Jets depth up front has been trumped throughout this season - with six forwards already into double digits for goals and several others knocking on the door of joining them.
Because the severity of the injury to Wheeler isn’t fully known and his potential return to the lineup is undetermined, it’s possible the Jets could add a depth forward to their shopping list leading into Monday’s NHL trade deadline.
However, the Jets top priority remains adding a defenceman, since they have internal options up front that they won’t hesitate to lean on in the short term, including Jansen Harkins, who is set to return to the lineup for the first time since Feb. 19 and slot in on the fourth line with Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis.
What’s the buzz like among Jets players when it comes to the potential for moves to be made leading up to the deadline?
“Honestly, it feels so weird this year with Covid. I feel like it really hasn’t been talked about as much. It’s kind of funky with the quarantine and all of that stuff,” said Jets centre Mark Scheifele. “No one really knows what to expect. I’m sure this is going to be some movement and I’m sure there is going to be some exciting things happening all around the league.
“All you can do is focus on the games that we have. We have some pretty big games coming up against some good opponents. All we’ve got to focus on is our game and our team and whatever happens, happens. I’ll be making those moves later in my life, on the GM side.”
In the short term, Andrew Copp moves back into the top-six in Wheeler’s spot alongside Paul Stastny and Dubois, while Mathieu Perreault will also enjoy as he gets a promotion to the third line with Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton.
Copp is in the midst of a career season and already has recorded career-highs in goals (12) and points (30).
He’s also shown he can handle the increased responsibility and he most certainly embraces it.
“I feel like if you do the right things over and over and over again, you’re going to earn the coach’s trust, you’re going to get rewarded,” said Copp. “Hopefully I can make the players around me trust me to be in the right spots at all times and make the other players around me better. That’s kind of what I want to be as a player. Like I say, you’ve never arrived, but those are the goals I’m kind of striving for for myself.”
Could this latest development have an impact on where the Jets ultimately finish in the standings?
Absolutely, but that’s a secondary concern at this stage.
“Everything up to this point is building for the playoffs,” said Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck. “I don't care how we make (the) playoffs, but once you get there, anyone's got a chance. For me, personally, I just want to give my team a chance to win every single night, get into a playoff spot and then battle from there."
This next stretch for the Jets will include battling without Wheeler, but provided the injury doesn’t keep him on the shelf for too long, one of the unintended benefits of this break might be that the right-winger comes back a little fresher for the stretch run and another opportunity to chase the Stanley Cup.