‘It’s gotta be this year’: Wheeler weary of miss­ing play­offs

Jets cap­tain tired of an­swer­ing ques­tions about los­ing

Winnipeg Free Press - - SPORTS - JASON BELL jason.bell@freep­ress.mb.ca Twit­ter: @WFPJa­sonBell

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.

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