WINNIPEG -- Blake Wheeler had a lot of ground to cover.
After all, a lot has transpired since the Winnipeg Jets captain last suited up in an NHL game, suffering a knee injury on Dec. 10 against the Vancouver Canucks after getting tangled up with teammate Nathan Beaulieu and opposition forward Vasily Podkolzin.
As Wheeler sat in front of a microphone during a Zoom call in Nashville and spoke for 11 1/2 minutes on Wednesday, one could not help but notice a common theme emerging as he discussed the road to recovery -- one that could see get him back in the Jets’ lineup as early as this weekend, depending on how the next few days go.
It’s not often that a player feels fortunate about being on the shelf for close to six weeks, but it’s a not-so-subtle reminder that given the nature of what happened, the severity of the injury could have been much worse.
To be frank, this could have easily been a season-ender.
“I’ve been so lucky over the course of my career, with a clean bill of health for the most part,” said Wheeler, known for his durability over 14 NHL seasons. “I guess I just look back on that and feel lucky I’ve gone this long without anything super serious. Even that particular injury, initially I thought it was going to be one of those where it was much more severe than it ended up being. Once again, just counting my blessings for sure.”
As for the play that caused the injury on a night he scored his first goal of the season and racked up three points, there wasn’t anything Wheeler could do to avoid the awkward collision.
“Yeah, I saw it coming. It was one of those things where I wasn't surprised,” said Wheeler. “I was going for a loose puck in front of our net, I saw bodies coming at me fast and I just couldn't get out of the way fast enough. So I knew it wasn't going to be good. Not the first guy that's had an injury like that. And like I said, I just feel lucky that it wasn't worse than it was.”
Thursday’s game against the Nashville Predators will be just the ninth game Wheeler has missed because of the injury, partly due to the nine postponed games that have now been rescheduled, mostly in February.
— Winnipeg Jets (@NHLJets) January 19, 2022
That’s one of the silver linings for both Wheeler and the Jets as they approach the midway point of the campaign, knowing things are about to pick up considerably as they get back into the rhythm of playing three or four times a week after an extended block of practice time during the past month or so.
“Once again, it’s been very odd. I kind of had a big chunk of games earmarked that I was going to be out for,” said Wheeler, who missed five games earlier this season while dealing with a bout of COVID-19. “I guess the timing for it was good in that sense. It’s been an odd month for sure for the team. Lots of practising, not a whole lot of game action.
“As much as I hate having to watch games, it’s something to look forward to (during) the day when you’re rehabbing. I definitely felt for the guys, watching from afar and seeing the practice schedule every day. I’m sure that gets old. It was probably a lot harder on the guys than it was on me, just because I knew I had nothing to contribute at the time.”
The other big change since Wheeler last played is behind the bench, where Dave Lowry took over as interim head coach after Paul Maurice decided to step away on Dec. 17.
At the time of his departure, Maurice revealed that he shared the news with Wheeler before addressing the team as a whole.
You could hear the emotion in Wheeler’s voice as he spoke publicly for the first time since the departure of the man who had a monumental impact on him during close to eight years behind the Jets bench.
“Certainly very disappointed in what happened. Shocking,” said Wheeler. “It was a tough time, I think, for the whole team. We were stunned for a while. Typically, when you have a coaching change it's for reasons that, you know, the guys end up being excited about it.
“It kind of kick-starts the team a little bit, there's a little jump in everyone's step. This one kind of took us a couple of days to process. But it's one of those things. Life goes on, and you have to adjust and adjust on the fly. And I think the guys have done a great job of grasping that and moving forward.”
Given the nature of the bond Wheeler and Maurice shared, it wasn’t surprising to hear the Jets captain invest some time to reflect on the relationship and share some of the things he appreciated most.
Not only did Wheeler touch on the personal qualities, but he made sure to weigh in on the legacy left behind by the man who took over for Claude Noel in January of 2014.
“Paul is an honest man, he’s a good man. He’s a guy that everyone that has ever played for him, you respect him,” said Wheeler. “The way he carries himself and the way he carries himself in the room, how he treats guys, I think that was for me the biggest thing that stood out. I didn’t feel like I was just a pawn on the chess board. I felt like I was cared about. Obviously our relationship, behind closed doors, we bounced a lot of things off each other and talked a little bit just about the game and everything else, too.
“It’s pretty rare in pro sports to come across a guy like that, I’ve found. He’s somebody that I’ll forever be grateful for my time with him and just look back on it with a lot of great memories. Unfortunately we didn’t accomplish the ultimate goals we had set for our team together, but from the time Paul came in until today, I think we can all agree the Winnipeg Jets are quite a bit different than eight years ago. That’s a testament to Paul Maurice and his leadership.”
Wheeler was also quick to praise Lowry when asked about the guy who has taken over.
“He’s been around the league a long time, a guy that has played over 1,000 games in the NHL. He’s been behind multiple benches,” said Wheeler. “His experience, the way he played the game too can be an asset for our team. He was a guy that played the game the right way, played hard. All the little things we’re trying to instill in our team to take us to that next level are things he brought to the table as a player. That experience in and of itself, is real valuable for our group.”
Whenever Wheeler returns, he’s going to be one of the prominent storylines to monitor.
It’s been that way for each of his 11 seasons and that’s not going to change any time soon.
Who will he be playing with?
How much ice time will he receive?
Will he be eased back into action or thrust right back into a prominent role?
With Lowry saying on Wednesday that forward Nikolaj Ehlers will miss at least the remainder of this four-game road trip after he was involved in a knee-on-knee collision with Washington Capitals defenceman Dmitry Orlov on Tuesday, integrating Wheeler into the lineup won’t be difficult and should ultimately provide a boost.
“Any time you lose a player in your top-six, you’re going to feel it. But the expectation is that somebody else is going to have to come in and fill that spot. It becomes an opportunity,” said Lowry. “When Blake is ready to play, there’s probably a very good chance that he’s going to slot back into the top-six. He got hurt the night that he was having his best game and I know that he’s excited to get back. Any time you can add your captain back into the mix, your guys get excited. The thing for us is that he’s a world-class player and when he comes in, he’ll play where we feel he has the best opportunity to get his feet wet again.”
It would not be a surprise to see Wheeler back beside Mark Scheifele and either Andrew Copp or Paul Stastny, especially when you consider how well Pierre-Luc Dubois has been playing between Kyle Connor and Cole Perfetti.
This is the longest in-season stretch between games for Wheeler during a career that has spanned 1,003 NHL contests, so it’s natural to wonder if it might take a bit of time for him to get back up to speed.
But when you see the work Wheeler has been putting in to get his conditioning up, that transition may not take as long as some might think.
Wheeler has missed so much time on the calendar that some observers have forgotten he was riding a five-game point streak that saw him amass one goal and nine assists during that stretch.
Well before he scored his first goal, Wheeler believed he’d been moving in the right direction.
You could see the power was back in his stride and shortly thereafter, the production started to increase to a level both Wheeler and the Jets had become accustomed to.
“I felt really good about my game for a while,” said Wheeler, who has 17 points in 22 games this season. “The goose egg in the goal department was a point of reference -- for good reason, part of my job is to chip in in the goal department. I’ve had stretches like that before in my career, maybe not quite that long, but it’s something that happens to everyone.
“You just deal with it and use that adversity to get better. As far as my game, I thought for a month plus, it was right where I liked it and I felt good about where I was at. Just excited about continuing to build on it and build within our team. I thought we had a lot of guys playing well, and we still have a lot of guys playing well, so now it’s about fitting back into the lineup whenever that happens and trying to maximize whatever role I’m put in.”