'A big loss': Wheeler sidelined by COVID-19, forcing Jets to remix lines

Winnipeg Jets forward Andrew Copp (9) shoots during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Buffalo Sabres, Sunday, Feb. 10, 2019, in Buffalo N.Y. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP)

WINNIPEG -- Dropping a pair of games to start a season is never optimal, but that represents more of a bump on the long and winding road than a true bout of adversity.

Well, the Winnipeg Jets could be heading squarely into that latter territory after captain Blake Wheeler is going to miss time after being placed in the NHL's COVID-19 protocols and is “symptomatic positive” according to team officials.

Wheeler will miss Tuesday’s game against the Minnesota Wild and needs to be in quarantine for 10 days.

“Obviously, he’s a big loss,” Jets centre Mark Scheifele told reporters in Minnesota on Tuesday. “The captain of our team, the guy that we all look to. Losing a guy like that is always tough, but you need guys to step up in that situation and we’ve got the guys to do it. We all have to rally together. We know it’s going to be a tough test against Minnesota and we’ve just got to be ready to put our best foot forward tonight.

“It’s not the start that we wanted, but we’ve only played two games. So, there’s no need to panic. We’ve got a lot of hockey to play. It’s just a matter of sticking to it. We’ve got a lot of new systems in place, a lot of new guys, so it’s a matter of building that together. Not trying to figure out everything in one shift, but continue to build as the game goes on.”

So, in addition to trying to clean up the spotty special-teams play that plagued the opening two games - with four power play goals allowed and another shorthanded marker while going 0-for-8 with the man-advantage and scoring once while shorthanded -- the Jets have made changes to all four lines.

Editor’s note: With overwhelming consistency, research has shown vaccinations against COVID-19 are safe and effective. Residents of Canada who are looking to learn more about vaccines, or the country’s pandemic response, can find up-to-date information on Canada’s public health website.

Maurice told reporters in Minnesota the plan is to dress 11 forwards and seven defencemen on Tuesday.

Missing a top-six forward is a loss for the Jets, but it also represents an opportunity for someone else in the lineup to see a rise in minutes and responsibility.

“I don’t know if scary is the right word, but it gives us a jolt that (COVID-19) is still around,” said Jets forward Andrew Copp. “I guess a little bit of an awakening, possibly, but we still got to go out and play hockey. We’re lucky enough to have everyone vaccinated so, hopefully, that keeps it out, maybe, just that hair more. Some guys have had it, so hopefully, that immunity lasts. Just trying to treat it like an injury right now. Obviously, we’ve played some games without Blake in the past, so everyone is just going to have to step up.”

During the past several seasons, the Jets have been forced to play without key players due to a variety of injuries and circumstances.

This challenge is coming early in the campaign, but it’s all about how a group responds that will determine what the impact is going to be.

“Everyone’s getting it, at one time or not. So deal with it now, and early,” said Maurice. “I don’t feel any differently about our acquisitions or what our team can do well. There’s about three or four parts to our game that are really, really good. And they’re better than they were last year, and markedly so. So there’s confidence in that. And then there’s what we’re doing, pucks from the top of the circles and our offensive game… Special teams, clean those two things up, get those tightened up, and then I think our five-on-five game is going to grow pretty quickly.

“The message changes, because there’s things in your game that have to get better. So we’re not walking in saying, 'Hey, these three things were good in the first two games, let’s just do that and we’re fine.'”

The plan could evolve depending on the length of Wheeler’s absence, but initially Maurice is planning to lean on his core players to pick up the slack.

As of now, Copp gets bumped up onto the top unit with Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor, while Paul Stastny slides onto the left wing with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Nikolaj Ehlers.

Scheifele is back for his second game of the season after missing the opener serving the final game of his suspension, while Dubois is coming off a strong showing where he scored a goal and was noticeable throughout.

The Jets remain strong down the middle and those centres can set the tone, while Ehlers and Connor are dangerous marksmen that can pull the trigger.

Copp got on the board with a short-handed marker on Saturday and is looking forward to another bump up the depth chart, while Stastny goes to a place where he spent part of last season and is comfortable.

There’s still plenty of skill in that top-six and those lines must push one another for the Jets to try and find their collective footing.

Adam Lowry will be flanked by Jansen Harkins and Kristian Vesalainen and that’s a group that must help provide some secondary scoring -- as Harkins did in Saturday’s game against the Sharks.

The fourth line tonight features Riley Nash, Evgeny Svenchnikov, while Cole Perfetti is going to be a healthy scratch and Nathan Beaulieu is inserted as the seventh defencemen (and someone likely to see time on the penalty kill).

These lines are not set in stone, especially after this industrial-sized shake-up in the blender.

As Maurice likes to say, things are never permanent and there will be plenty of time to try out other combinations if necessary.

Right now, the Jets need to focus on getting things dialled in.

The last time they saw the Wild, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter had not been bought out and reigning Calder Trophy winner Kirill Kaprizov was playing in the KHL and hadn’t transformed the offensive attack and Devan Dubnyk was still playing goal.

Facing a divisional opponent in a rivalry game is rarely a bad thing.

“We know it’s going to be the same way against these guys all the time. It’s not going to be an easy game and it’s going to be a lot of hard ice,” Jets defenceman Nate Schmidt told reporters in Minnesota on Monday. “Our guys understand that and we realize this game feels a bit different than the last couple have. But that’s just because you’re stepping back into your division for the first time in a year-and-a-half.”

But while the Jets will be aware of what their opponent will be doing, they’re working at taking the necessary steps forward when it comes to the systemic changes they’re implementing in all three zones.

Ultimately, players moving in and out of the lineup are part of the ebbs and flows of a regular season.

Teams are conditioned to have a next-player-up mentality and not to spend time worrying about who is not available for the lineup on any given night.

“Yeah. I mean, with everything else, you learn every single year,” said Ehlers. “You learn how to take care of yourself, you learn how to take care as a team when things aren’t going the way that you want it to. We’ve played two games and we feel good. We’re not sitting in there crying. We know we’re a good team and we’re fine.

“We’re going to lose games this year and we’ve lost games in the past, so it’s nothing new. Of course we would have liked a better start, but we’ll look at tomorrow as a new start for us.”

When submitting content, please abide by our  submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.
We use cookies to improve your experience. Learn More or change your cookie preferences. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies.