Blake Wheeler’s goal song is “Hypnotize” by the Notorious BIG. Appropriate, as the lyric “guess that’s why they so broke, and you’re so paid” is apropos given Wheeler’s current contractual predicament with the Winnipeg Jets.
Let’s get the obligatory disclaimer out of the way. Blake Wheeler has had an excellent NHL career. Drafted in 2004, Wheeler has amassed 311 goals, 601 assists and 912 points over 15 seasons. He has played in 2 All-Star games and finished 8th in the Hart race in 2017-18. Nothing but respect for this Winnipeg Jets stalwart.
That said, Father Time remains undefeated. The last 3 years have seen Blake Wheeler transition from a top-50 NHL forward to a fringe right-winger. His defenders (namely his coaches) will point to the fact that he is still nearly a point-a-game player. If Usain Bolt piggybacks you across a finish line, that doesn’t mean you deserve the gold medal. If that analogy seems anachronistic, it is, just like Blake Wheeler’s game.
As we can see, Wheeler benefits greatly from his teammates:
We can also quantify his general dip in play:
The reality is that Blake Wheeler is no longer a top 6 forward. I believe he can still be an effective forechecker on a 3rd line (with Lowry and Barron), but 1st line powerplay duties and 20 minutes a game should no longer be the standard. His current play is a drag on his line-mates. Nik Ehlers is a prime example:
For the context above, red is good and blue is bad. Even B.B. King didn’t have such a dramatic impact on the “blues”.
What is next for Winnipeg Jets’ Blake Wheeler?
After 6 seasons as captain of the Winnipeg Jets, Wheeler was asked to relinquish his captaincy prior to the 2022-23 season. The demotion was not unexpected, but jarring nonetheless. What brought upon this change in leadership has been well vetted and discussed, but to recapitulate, the end of the 2021-22 season was an undisputed tire fire.
Publicly, a geyser of malcontent flooded post-season soundbites regarding the direction, leadership and culture of this team. Blake Wheeler was the de facto leader at the time and needed to transition to a supporting role. He has assumed that role with aplomb and grace. He needs to now assume a similar supporting role on the ice.
$8.25 M/year is a lot for a 3rd line winger, but given his inflated salary and No Movement Clause, options are limited in terms of a trade. Every team suffers through the quandary of an aging star with an inflated salary, so the blueprint for navigating this should be out there. Heck, Arizona seems openly willing to act as a Cayman Bank for many NHL teams – so let’s explore every option.
Realistically, the Jets have one last shot to make a Stanley Cup run. Wheeler won’t be back after next season and the futures of Scheifele, PLD and Hellebuyck are also all in question past 2024. That means the Jets need to eschew politeness and loyalty – for results. If we can’t trade him (again, unlikely), and he doesn’t retire – his role needs to be diminished significantly.
Maximize your best players and shelter those that contribute less. That strategy has worked for as long as I can remember. Or, as Biggie put it, “since the days of Underoos”.