‘It’s gotta be this year’: Wheeler weary of missing playoffs
Jets captain tired of answering questions about losing
THERE’S no room left for excuses. That was Blake Wheeler’s clear, concise message Wednesday morning. The Winnipeg Jets captain stepped off the ice following an informal workout with a mix of pros at the Bell MTS Iceplex and chatted with reporters about the upcoming season, his seventh in a Jets jersey.
Pleasantries were exchanged and congratulations offered to the veteran right-winger on the safe arrival of his third child this summer. But the imposing 6-5, 225-pounder quickly turned serious.
It has been more than two years since the Central Division team made its one and only playoff appearance, and Wheeler has grown weary of answering the endless questions about this shortcoming or that, yet another disappointing end to the season and...
“It’s gotta be this year, it just has to be,” said the man from Plymouth, Minn., who turns 31 today.
“We have enough talent. There’s no reason why we can’t push this to the next level this year. It’s going to be about getting this group together and figuring out how we have to play to win hockey games.”
To make significant strides in the Western Conference and solidify a place in the post-season, the Jets — one of the league’s most offensively explosive teams — must drastically reduce the number of goals they surrender. Winnipeg, 40-35-7 and ninth in the conference last season, gave up 256 of them; only three clubs allowed more.
The beastly number was explained and rationalized by various observers in various ways at various points in the schedule: the team’s youth and inexperience; a propensity for taking penalties, particularly while defending in their end of the rink; injuries to key performers such as centre Bryan Little and defencemen Tyler Myers and Toby Enstrom; and sub-par goaltending from Connor Hellebuyck and Michael Hutchinson.
Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff signed a trio of free agents this summer to shore up some of those team weaknesses.
Wheeler said bringing veteran goalie Steve Mason on board is a major plus, but his presence alone won’t solve the pesky problem of giving up far too many quality scoring chances.
“We’ve got to figure out a way to win hockey games. A part of that is getting better goaltending, and a part of that is playing better in front of our goalies, allowing them to maybe not see as many odd-man rushes or the breakdowns that we have sometimes,” Wheeler said.
“That’s about our group knowing each other and figuring out how we’ve got to play in front of (the netminders).”
Mason, 29, inked a two-year, US$8.2-million deal July 1 after five seasons in Philadelphia. He started his career by winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s rookie of the year in Columbus at the end of the 2008-09 season.
“Steve brings a level of professionalism and experience that’s going to help us a lot,” Wheeler said.
“Hopefully, (Hellebuyck) learns a lot from him and they can work together to be a great tandem back there, because every team has two goalies you rely on throughout the year, whether one guy plays the bulk (of games) or not.”
The Jets, meanwhile, tied for sixth in goals (249) last season, led by Calder finalist Patrik Laine’s 36, 32 from centre Mark Scheifele, 26 from Wheeler and 25 from Nikolaj Ehlers.
Wheeler was joined on the ice Wednesday by one of his new teammates, 26-year-old blue-liner Dmitry Kulikov, who, like Mason, was locked up by the Jets on July 1. He signed a three-year deal, with an average annual value of US$4.333 million.
The left-shooting defenceman, who struggled with injuries and inconsistent play in Buffalo last season, is billed as a puck-mover who likes to throw his 6-1, 205-pound frame around. He joins a defensive corps that includes a healthy Myers and Enstrom, Dustin Byfuglien, Jacob Trouba, Josh Morrissey and Ben Chiarot.
“You just can never have enough NHL defencemen,” Wheeler said.
“As a forward, you’re licking your chops. Those guys can move the puck, they can jump up into the play, they can keep plays alive for us. (It is a) tremendous amount of ability back there, so we’re blessed to have those guys giving us the puck, there’s no doubt.”
The Jets also signed former Edmonton Oilers grinder Matt Hendricks to a one-year, US$700,000 contract last week, sparking a firestorm of debate among fans about the thinking behind a 36-year-old fourth-liner making one-way dough and taking a roster spot from a younger, faster forward such as a Nic Petan or Marko Dano.
But Wheeler, who is very familiar with the fellow Minnesotan, said Hendricks adds a valuable veteran presence.
“It’s going to mean a great deal to me to have another voice in there,” he said.
“We are a young team and that room can go quiet a little bit sometimes, so to have someone other than myself or Scheif or Buff step up and be a voice and lead by example on the ice, I think it’s a great addition.”
Wheeler and Kulikov were the only Jets participating in the skate Wednesday. Mark Stuart, still without a job after being placed on waivers by Winnipeg on June 30 for the purpose of buying out the final year of his contract, also practised with about two dozen other pros with local ties, including forward Ryan Reaves, who was dealt from St. Louis to Pittsburgh in June, as well as goalie Calvin Pickard and forwards Keegan Kolesar and Brendan Leipsic, all members of the Las Vegas Golden Knights.
Winnipeg’s rookie camp begins Sept. 7 and main camp opens with physicals on Sept. 15. The annual Jets Fan Fest is scheduled for Sept. 16 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Iceplex. The Jets will conduct two on-ice sessions (9 a.m. and noon) that day.
Exactly a year ago, Wheeler was handed the C by the organization, and he admitted Wednesday much was learned during his first season as captain. Not only did he quietly wrestle with his own feelings, but also had to alter the way he counselled others in the room.
“It’s sometimes lonely. The things you want to say or the things you want to do, you gotta just bottle that up. That’s not really in my personality to keep things inside or bottle it up,” he said. “There’s times when you gotta build a guy up who might be struggling and there’s times when you gotta kick him in the rear when he’s struggling. It’s about knowing your guys, knowing the different relationships in the locker room.
“It’s having an atmosphere where the guys are excited to come to the rink and be around each other and work hard every day. If you do that throughout an 82-game season, you’re going to find you’re enjoying yourself and winning more hockey games than you lose.”
‘We’ve got to figure out a way to win hockey games. A part of that is getting better goaltending, and a part of that is playing better in front of our goalies, allowing them to maybe not see as many odd-man rushes or the breakdowns that we have sometimes’
— Jets captain Blake Wheeler
Blake Wheeler takes a breather during a skate with other NHL players at the Bell MTS Iceplex Wednesday.