With Wheeler out, Jets need cumulative effort to replace his production

Nils Hoglander scored a pair of goals as the Vancouver Canucks defeated the Winnipeg Jets 4-3 in a shootout.

WINNIPEG — Blake Wheeler was not about to lay on the ice and wait for assistance to arrive on the scene.

But after the Winnipeg Jets captain grabbed his right knee in obvious pain during the stoppage in play during the third period, he struggled to make his way to the bench.

Once he arrived, Wheeler had to be helped down the tunnel and didn’t return.

When Jets head coach Paul Maurice didn’t offer his usual response that it would take a day or two to determine the severity, you got the sense this wasn’t going to be something Wheeler could try and battle through.

This was the type of injury that was going to put him on the shelf, at least for the foreseeable future.

“It’s going to be a while,” said Maurice, whose team dropped a 4-3 shootout decision to the Vancouver Canucks on Friday night. “We’ll get him looked at tomorrow. I’m not a doctor, but it’s going to be a while.

“We’ll get him healed up, we’ll find other players and we’ll find a way to do it without him.”

That Maurice was already openly talking about potential options to replace Wheeler provided a glimpse of the severity of the injury, though a full update won’t likely be available until the Jets return to practice on Monday to prepare for a three-game homestand that opens on Tuesday against the Buffalo Sabres.

Wheeler’s durability has been his calling card throughout his career, missing only 18 games in 14 seasons — with five of those coming earlier this season while dealing with a COVID-19 and several others being forced absences to rest him for the playoffs.

Just last season, Wheeler played through fractured ribs for an extended period of time.

During the course of his career, Wheeler’s high pain threshold has been well-documented.

But after seeing him get tangled up with Jets defenceman Nathan Beaulieu and Vancouver Canucks forward Vasily Podkolzin at 8:44 of the third period and watching Wheeler grab his knee while grimacing in pain, this obviously looked serious.

For all of the consternation about Wheeler’s slow offensive start to the season, the fact of the matter was this game was his best of the season — and not just because he snapped a 21-game goal-scoring drought in the first period on the power play, through a perfect screen by Pierre-Luc Dubois.

To mark the occasion, Wheeler pretended to throw an imaginary monkey off his back and into the crowd — a sign of humour, but also an admission of the mental toll that a lengthy drought can have on a player — even one who now has 280 NHL goals and 1,003 NHL games on his resume.

Prior to the injury, this was vintage Wheeler, using his legs to generate scoring chances, including a clear-cut breakaway that was turned aside by Canucks goalie Thatcher Demko.

Wheeler was using his vision to see plays before they had fully developed and he used his playmaking ability to spring Kyle Connor with speed on a rush chance that led to a one-timer goal for Mark Scheifele.

The Jets’ reunited top line was clicking at even strength, producing a pair of goals and a plethora of high-danger scoring chances — far more than they gave up on this night.

And Wheeler was doing his part to drive the play.

“He was playing awesome. It was tough to see him down on the ground like that,” said Scheifele, who extended his point streak to five games and is up to seven goals and 17 points in 21 games. “Yeah, we know he’s a warrior, he plays through pretty much everything. Hopefully we get some better news when we get home and get the doctors to look at it. All we can do is pray for good news.”

Yes, the Jets' top trio was on the ice for two even-strength goals against, but one was a softie that should have been stopped by backup goalie Eric Comrie.

Things didn’t go quite as smoothly after Wheeler’s departure, as the Canucks made a strong push in the third period, but Comrie held the fort and ensured the Jets earned a single point by finishing with 33 saves in what was his first start in 10 games.

The game was not without controversy as the Jets had what appeared to be the go-ahead goal taken off the board after a successful coach’s challenge for goalie interference.

Dubois clearly made contact with Demko before Andrew Copp was able to bang home the loose puck, but the Jets' position was that the incidental contact in the blue paint was not what prevented a potential save from being made.

When the decision was announced after the video review, Maurice was seen erupting with a series of expletives, a natural reaction after a coach’s challenge by the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night overturned a play that was originally called goalie interference and instead turned into a goal from Sebastian Aho.

“I don’t like one of those two calls,” said Maurice. “I can’t tell you which one. But one of those two calls is wrong.”

Copp provided a bit more detailed explanation of his frustration.

“You just never know what to expect, honestly. And it’s not just that, it’s just the full lack of clarity on what is goalie interference and what is not. That could have been goalie interference, for sure. If that one is, then probably the Hellebuyck once against Carolina probably is. So, I don’t think it’s just one call, it’s just lack of clarity overall.

“The one today, it’s a 50-50 puck, (Dubois) is going backdoor tap-in and that’s the ruling that we got from the league, that incidental contact on a 50-50 puck around the net is not goalie interference. That’s where we are confused.”

The Jets head home with three of four points collected against the Canucks and Seattle Kraken on this two-game West Coast swing.

The bigger issue goes back to how the team is going to handle the loss of Wheeler, who was up to 17 points in 22 games this season as he worked to put a slow start in the rearview mirror.

No matter how long Wheeler is going to be out of the lineup, the Jets have some major minutes and responsibilities to fill.

Without an extra healthy forward on the roster, the most likely scenario for a short-term solution involves recalling David Gustafsson from the Manitoba Moose of the American Hockey League.

Gustafsson is off to a strong start (seven goals and 16 points in 22 games) and delivered the game-winning goal on Friday night against the Grand Rapids Griffins.

But he’s going to be asked to fill a fourth-line role and help the penalty kill, at least initially.

Those top-six minutes will require some further attention, though there are some internal candidates ready for more responsibility.

Paul Stastny got the immediate bump with Scheifele and Connor and it stands to reason he’ll remain in that spot, with the likes of Jansen Harkins, Kristian Vesalainen and Evgeny Svechnikov standing on guard for an expanded role.

The power play will also need to be reconfigured once again, especially with defenceman Neal Pionk still on the shelf with a concussion and Scheifele now being the only right-handed shooting forward left on the roster that is healthy.

The Jets, who have a record of 13-9-5, aren’t going to ask one guy to replace Wheeler’s production, this will need to be more of a cumulative effort.

The one thing to remember about the Jets is that they’ve had plenty of chances for players to step up because of injuries over the past few seasons.

This is just the latest one in a long line, even if it involves the absence of a player who simply hasn’t missed much time over the course of his career.

It’s going to be a difficult challenge for the Jets to overcome, but that’s what good teams do when faced with circumstances like this - they rally together and find a way.

Can the Jets continue to stay in the playoff race in the Western Conference until Wheeler is ready to return to action?

That’s the next question they’ll be left to try and answer.

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