COLUMBUS, Ohio — When it comes to Blake Wheeler, this could be a situation where less could actually lead to more.
The captain of the Winnipeg Jets is officially mired in a slump, having gone 14 games without a goal following Wednesday’s 3-0 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
This isn’t about the leadership he provides or the effort he puts forth, as Wheeler has built a reservoir of goodwill with his head coach and his teammates through his high standard of work over his 11-plus years of service with the organization.
This isn’t to suggest he’s over the hill or can’t find a way to fight his way through a tough patch, even when it seems obvious that something isn’t right with him at the moment.
Whether that’s the lingering effects of his bout with Covid-19 or an undisclosed injury he’s trying to battle through, this is clearly one of the most difficult stretches of Wheeler’s career.
The mind is willing, but the body isn’t allowing Wheeler to get to the places his feet have previously taken him.
There have been bursts and flashes, but the tank seems to be running low early into his shifts.
When the puck is on his stick, Wheeler knows what to do with it, whether it’s distributing the puck to others or looking for a shot from the slot.
His consistency as a point producer speaks for himself.
As Wheeler approaches his 1,000th NHL game, he’s built an All-Star resume that includes eight seasons of 20-plus goals – and two others that would have included hitting that mark were it not for a pair of shortened seasons.
For as often as he’s dented the twine, Wheeler’s superpower has always been his ability to set up others with his sublime vision and deft passing.
But as the Jets approach the quarter-point of this new season, Wheeler finds himself in a serious funk when it comes to his offensive game.
With only five assists to date, Wheeler simply isn’t producing at the pace we’ve become accustomed to seeing – or the level he expects of himself.
The passes haven’t been quite as precise and the puck isn’t coming off his stick as naturally when he unloads his shot either.
And while Wheeler was defiant in his most recent interview about his slow start, things have taken a bit of a turn since that time.
Those scoring chances and great looks that were evident earlier have become less frequent.
Since a promotion to the top line with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Kyle Connor, Wheeler has been limited to one assist – and it came on a smart play in the defensive zone to spring Connor for an empty-net goal.
As the Jets have been limited to only four goals scored during a four-game losing skid (0-3-1) which dropped the team’s record to 9-6-4 going into Friday’s matinee with the Minnesota Wild, the offensive taps are down to a trickle.
In the search for answers, Maurice got out the line blender late in the second period, moving Nikolaj Ehlers up with Dubois and Connor and sliding Wheeler over with Mark Scheifele and Andrew Copp.
The changes didn’t have much of an effect on the outcome, as the Jets couldn’t solve Elvis Merzlikins, who made 36 saves to record the shutout.
The other move made to try and spark a struggling power play (stuck in a zero-for-21 patch) included shifting Wheeler back to his customary spot on the half wall, where he’s enjoyed an incredible amount of success dishing the puck over the years.
One of the strangest developments of this season is the fact Wheeler has been limited to just one assist with the man-advantage.
It’s a place where he’s previously feasted on opponents and taken advantage of his ability to create with a bit more time and space to find seams that often lead to dangerous scoring chances.
Those chances haven’t been as plentiful on the power play so far either, though the smart is on Wheeler finding his rhythm there eventually, considering his body of work.
When it comes to five-on-five play, that’s where Maurice might be able to put Wheeler in a better position to succeed by reducing his minutes and taking some of the responsibility off his shoulders, even if it’s just a temporary move to allow him to get his feet back under him.
Make no mistake, this is a delicate matter for Maurice to navigate.
But it’s not one he can afford to ignore either.
Reducing the ice time of the franchise leader in points isn’t something that happens without giving the situation a great deal of thought.
Neither was removing Wheeler from the six-on-five situations the Jets found themselves in during a recent stretch of games when the team pulled its goalie in favour of an extra attacker.
Maurice recognized the time was right for the latter and he must now consider the former, not as a form of punishment but as a way to actually help Wheeler work his way out of it.
By doing so, Maurice could get Wheeler out on the ice in some more favourable matchups and occasionally against third-pairing defencemen.
Getting roughly 16 quality minutes out of Wheeler could be more fruitful than asking him to play 19-plus minutes, as he’s done six times already.
This move could help free up Wheeler to focus on the defensive part of the game while also getting a few more offensive looks, which should eventually lead to a breakthrough.
Dubois has one goal in his past four games, while Connor has gone four games without a goal for the first time this season after racking up 12 markers through 15 games.
Maurice said himself that his previous juggle to move Wheeler into this situation had nothing to do with the play of Evgeny Svechnikov, who has done a nice job since moving onto a unit with Lowry and Jansen Harkins.
This isn’t to suggest for one second that Dubois and Connor need to play with Svechnikov to get their scoring touch back.
There’s no doubt who the complementary piece on the line was, though that’s not a criticism of Svechnikov either.
He did his part to make the line effective and it’s not a stretch to think he could be part of the solution.
When the idea of reuniting Svechnikov with Dubois and Connor was raised in the post-game media gathering on Wednesday, Maurice made it clear it wasn’t located at the top of his to-do list.
“That’s a possibility,” said Maurice. “I don’t think that they’ve lost offensive chances because of it. I don’t think their numbers are going down. That’s not a place I’m looking (at).”
Perhaps a matchup against his hometown team and a Central Division rival will be just what the doctor ordered for Wheeler and the Jets, who don’t seem to be lacking belief despite enduring this rocky patch.
It was just over a week ago when the Jets were being praised for their ability to take three of four points against the Edmonton Oilers and starting to look like they could be one of the best teams in the Western Conference.
Fast forward three games and the Jets find themselves recognizing the gravity of the situation going into a weekend set against the two division leaders in the West, the Wild and the Calgary Flames.
“The concern level is probably where it was after 0-2 — not very high,” said Copp. “A lot of confidence in our group but with that said, a sense of urgency to get it back rolling again.”
For as much as the Jets have been able to say the right things about going through the goal-scoring drought and how to snap out of it, Wednesday was the first extended period of time the team showed some frustration that slipped into the defensive side of the game.
Though Connor Hellebuyck made it eight consecutive starts of allowing two goals or fewer, the Jets didn’t defend well enough and made life more difficult on the goalie than necessary.
The Jets can’t afford to let the details portion of the structural game slip in an effort to score their way out of this slump.
“I’d be lying if I’m not worried about our offence, but I know it’s there. I’m not worried about how are we ever going to score another goal. It’s there,” said Maurice. “But we can’t have a defensive game like that, coupled with our offensive struggles right now.”
That’s not a viable long-range solution.
“It’s pretty obvious that you don’t want to get on a run of losses,” said Ehlers, who generated five shots on goal and a game-high 12 shot attempts against the Blue Jackets. “We want to find a way to continue playing good hockey, the way we want to play – and score some more goals. But we want to play the right way doing that.”