Wheeler proving he’s still a leader for the Jets, regardless of title

Blake Wheeler recorded his 4th career hat trick while Connor Hellebuyck shut the door with 40 saves as the Winnipeg Jets blanked the Colorado Avalanche 5-0.

WINNIPEG — Blake Wheeler has always been a guy who prefers to let his play do most of the talking, especially in those moments where he’s asked to weigh in on his own performance.

And while there must be some temptation for the veteran Winnipeg Jets forward to lash out at some of his critics as he provides evidence that has at least temporarily silenced many of them, Wheeler has been around long enough to know that acknowledging those who expected him to slip down the depth chart wouldn’t make them go away anyway.

Instead, the former Jets captain has embraced his current role — which remains an important one, even if his ice time has been reduced by roughly two minutes per game — and continues to do what he’s done since arriving on the scene in Winnipeg.

For those who may have forgotten, what Wheeler has done with regularity is produce at a high rate.

Don’t look now but after notching his fourth career hat trick and adding an assist, Wheeler is up to eight goals and 20 points in 21 games.

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Instead of chatter about why Wheeler might be better suited to slide onto the third line with Adam Lowry, folks are now wondering if he’ll be able to keep up the remarkable pace as the season rolls along.

“He’s just been on fire. His workload and work ethic was so good and so strong,” said Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck, who made 40 saves in the 5-0 victory over the Colorado Avalanche for his third shutout of the season and 31st of his career.

“When he’s playing the right way, he’s just dominating play. We all know what kind of player he is. When he gets in that rhythm, honestly, he works twice as hard as everyone else on this team. There is not a bad thing that I could say about the guy. He’s just on fire. Keep feeding him. He’s just been in the right spot at the right time. He’s playing really solid defence and I appreciate that a lot from him.”

Asked about his first hat trick since he had four goals in a 5-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets on March 3 of 2019, Wheeler chose instead to break into a soliloquy that was fuelled by gratitude, not by the idea of trying to prove people wrong.

“Just grateful to still be out there and playing a meaningful role on a pretty good hockey team,” said Wheeler, who led Jets forwards in ice time with 19:28 on Tuesday. “I’m just enjoying these opportunities. When you’re playing with the guys I get to play with, you’re going to get put in those positions. I just feel fortunate a few bounces went my way.”

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There was an act-like-you’ve-been-there-before tone to Wheeler, but the enjoyment element he touched on cannot be overlooked.

During the previous several seasons, Wheeler’s enjoyment level appeared to be low and by his own admission, the captaincy had been weighing heavily on him — especially when you consider the amount of pressure he already puts on himself to perform at a high level.

Some observers wondered if Jets head coach Rick Bowness making the bold decision to remove the C might cause Wheeler to check out, but that’s simply not the way the Minnesota product is wired.

Not only has Wheeler been able to play at a high level, the work he’s invested on becoming a better leader has been on display for all to see — even if he’s no longer wearing the letter he took so much pride in seeing on his chest.

“Yep. When we had to go through this whole captaincy thing, I told Blake you’re still the leader of this hockey club,” said Bowness. “The C or the A, don’t worry about it. Be you. Give him a lot of credit. He’s done a much better job behind the scenes than anyone realizes, other than me because I get to watch it.

“He’s been a very positive influence in our room from day one. I stand in the back and watch, and I see him going around and talking to the guys. He knows where he’s at in his career and he’s doing everything he can to help this team win and help this team get better. The on-ice is one thing. His play is speaking for itself. Just as important for me is what he’s doing off the ice. At this stage of his career, the man wants to win. That’s the bottom line.”

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Wheeler has been reunited lately with longtime linemate Mark Scheifele and Cole Perfetti and the trio was rolling on Tuesday, with Scheifele adding a goal (his team-leading 12th) and two helpers, while Perfetti chipped in three assists.

The second of those helpers from Perfetti demonstrated his incredible vision, as he took a cross-ice feed from Scheifele and did a quick shoulder check as he accepted the pass, before pivoting and taking the puck wide. Perfetti’s backhand dish in the slot allowed Wheeler to skate into and fire home his second goal of the contest.

As Wheeler skated into the corner to celebrate, the appreciation for the skill displayed by Perfetti was plastered all across his face — a Holy smokes recognition by someone who knows a thing or two about the combination of vision and deft passing.

“I saw the little seam open up under the guy’s stick. I mean, to be able to make that play on your backhand, and just see it, let alone execute it, is pretty next level stuff,” said Wheeler. “It was an awesome play. I think he knew, once (Scheifele) made the cross ice pass, that his eyes have to kind of come up to get the pass. So he kind of saw me when he was getting that pass.

“Once he brought it to his backhand, he was just waiting for the defender to turn. Once he tries to poke check him and stick his stick out, that’s where the lane is. For a young kid to see it like that is pretty awesome. That’s what chemistry is.”

Chemistry is something the Jets have done an excellent job of building throughout the first 21 games of the season and with a third consecutive victory over a Central Division opponent, the Jets moved within a point of the Dallas Stars in the chase for top spot, while still holding two games in hand.

Wheeler, once again, took an act-like-you’ve-been-there approach to a question about whether a convincing win like this one over the defending Stanley Cup champions might qualify as a statement game.

“I don’t know if I’d go that far. We’ve liked the way we’ve played,” said Wheeler. “A little sluggish in the first period coming off the road, but kind of to be expected. We just want to continue to build our game and to perform obviously at home in front of our fans. (This) was a good step in that direction.”

Bowness did concede this was more than just another early-season contest to close out what has been a rock-solid month of November for the Jets, but his answer had more to do with building belief than sending any sort of message to teams around the league that might not be paying close attention to what’s been happening with his group.

“No, it’s not just another game. I think the message we’re trying to send here is to make them worry about us,” said Bowness. “They’re the defending Stanley Cup Champions, they’re a great hockey team, yeah they are. We’re starting to realize that when we play the right way, and we play the way we’re supposed to play, and play together, we’re a very good hockey club.

“If you look at the game, I thought we gave them way too much respect in the first period, then we started to play our hockey in the second and third, and there was a big difference. That shows me that it’s coming. They’re starting to believe that if we play the right way, play hard, good things will happen for us.”

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