What is Blake Wheeler’s legacy with the Winnipeg Jets?

Winnipeg Jets, Blake Wheeler (Mandatory Credit: James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports)
Winnipeg Jets, Blake Wheeler (Mandatory Credit: James Carey Lauder-USA TODAY Sports) /

You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain” – Harvey Dent

Blake Wheeler is no longer a Winnipeg Jet. Any ending begets a reminiscence, and a desire to put into context the protagonist’s story. The hero’s journey is a framework for crafting a compelling narrative, and Wheeler’s hero journey mirrors that of the fictional Harvey Dent.

Harvey was Gotham’s “White Knight” – a scrupulously clean leader that represented the future of a struggling architecture. For years, Wheeler was a similar totem of hope and a leader of men. While Dent’s heel turn was far more overt, both were victims of a changing landscape and the inevitable passage of time in a chaotic environment.

Blake Wheeler should be remembered as the hero. Not the Superman kind – with otherworldly gifts, but rather the Batman kind – one that maximized his strengths and never quit. Wheeler’s superlatives are extensive.

Blake Wheeler the player

A 2-time All-Star, Wheeler’s accolades have always seemed largely underappreciated. From 2013-2017, Wheeler was 29th overall in “Goals Above Replacement”, sandwiched in between the likes of the much-heralded Patrick Kane, Nikita Kucherov and Ryan Getzlaf. His RAPM profile during this span is an impressive sea of blue:

In his prime, Wheeler was one of the best set-up men in the league. His proficiency in that regard, especially on the powerplay, is a testament to his hard work. Earlier in his career, Wheeler was content to rely on his speed to navigate play, and his north-south game while impactful, lacked nuance.

As the years passed, Wheeler’s game evolved. Whether by will or necessity, Wheeler became one of the NHL’s premier assist-men, and lead the league in that category in the 2017-18 season. Unselfish almost to a fault, Wheeler was at his best finding openings in the offensive end.

An underrated aspect of Wheeler’s game was his grit and effort level. Even in his last few seasons as a Jet, with a diminished skill set, Wheeler never seemed to take a night off. Effectiveness aside, nobody took issue with Wheeler’s engagement on a nightly basis.

On September 4, 2018, at 33 years of age, Blake Wheeler got PAID. This set in motion the rocky ending to Wheeler’s Jet career. The epicenter of the issue was that his $8 million plus/year salary was based on past performance, rather than a projection of future production.

As we can see, Wheeler’s output precipitously declined almost immediately after signing:

Therein lies the heel turn. When your highest-paid player (and captain) is no longer producing commensurate with his compensation, the hero turns to villain. The organization failed to recognize Wheeler’s dip in play, and he continued to dominate key regular strength and powerplay minutes. Coupled with a decline in organizational success, Wheeler became the lightning rod for the need for change.

Blake Wheeler the leader

Blake Wheeler the leader follows a similar trajectory. As captain of the Jets from 2016-2022, Wheeler had the polished veneer of a man appreciably smarter than your average NHL hockey player. And he was. Sometimes that intelligence manifested itself as stoicism or even truculence with the media and the Jets fanbase.

By all accounts though, Wheeler was well-liked by his teammates, and a huge contributor to the community. As the years went by, however, rumors began to surface that the Jets’ locker room had bifurcated. The Laine’s and Byfugliens of the world – big personalities, seemingly had trouble meshing with Wheeler-led rosters.

Outside of Jets staff, and a selective group of insiders, nobody can assess definitively Wheeler’s effectiveness as a leader, but outward signs pointed to a change being necessary. When Wheeler was stripped of his captaincy in 2022, many felt (present company included) that he had lost the ability to lead from a player perspective. Fair or not, postseason press conferences had become an airing of grievances, and general unrest seemed to be pervasive under his watch.

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In the end, though, Blake Wheeler did the Jets proud, and his number should be lifted to the rafters. His buyout represents a necessary, but unfortunate end to his tenure as a Winnipeg Jet, and most Jets’ faithful hope he closes his career in New York with grandeur. A hero’s journey is rife with trials and tribulations, but ultimately the journey is remembered by its impact on the audience. For what it’s worth, consider this audience member a fan.