Blake Wheeler and the New York Rangers make their way back to the Canada Life Centre tonight, and with it, comes the natural reflection about a player who dedicated the majority of his career to Winnipeg.
Blake Wheeler didn’t win a Stanley Cup in Winnipeg. He didn’t drag this franchise on his back to new, sustained heights with his “elite” drive, as Paul Maurice put it. His tenure didn’t even end as a man still wearing the captain’s “C”, a crazy development in hindsight, given True North’s set values that seemingly have loyalty at the top.
And, for better or for worse, his ability as a captain was called into his question that final year, perhaps signaling the beginning of the end of a great career in Winnipeg.
The Jets, meanwhile, appear as harmonious as ever early on, with the cleanish departure of Wheeler and the trading of Pierre-Luc Dubois to the Los Angeles Kings.
The vibe around the team is easily summed up by the message that everyone – from management to media members are saying – that everyone wants to be here.
It’s important though to remember, though, that Blake Wheeler was at one point one of those players.
He signed three separate contracts to be in Winnipeg. He dedicated the prime of his career to be a Jet, to be one of those men that brought the franchise to it’s newest height, a Conference Finals appearance back in 2017-18.
The end of his Winnipeg career clouds what was an incredible contribution to hockey in Winnipeg.
And tonight he returns to Winnipeg as the greatest Jet of all time.
The speed, the size, the skill, the will
When I think of Blake Wheeler, three things come to mind.
The first is the visual of him bursting down the right wing, a six foot five beast barreling down the ice in an unstoppable manner.
The second is almost the exact opposite, him at the right half wall on the power play, surveying, calculating, and using his vision and playmaking to find Scheifele or Byfuglien for a one timer.
And I also think back to the day he was named the 2nd captain of the Winnipeg Jets 2.0 back in 2016.
There was such optimism around the team then. And for good reason.
I remember Paul Maurice’s glowing interview about Wheeler’s captaincy, declaring he had “elite” drive and that he had coached and worked with few players who could match Wheeler’s will and determination. Given where the franchise was at the time, he was the obvious choice. Byfuglien, no matter how much that locker room misses his joviality, wasn’t quite one to wear the “C”. Bryan Little was a reasonable candidate, but wasn’t in the same tier of player as Wheeler. And the Jets’ current leadership group of Adam Lowry, Mark Scheifele, and Josh Morrissey were 23 years old or younger, and weren’t quite ready to be those players yet.
Wheeler was named captain in 2016, right as the team was transitioning from young, exciting team to one with real talent, ready to explode.
And so was Wheeler.
Coming off a then-career high 78 points, Wheeler would score 256 points in 245 games over his first three seasons as captain, 6th in the league in the league over that span. Leon Draisatl, Nathan MacKinnon, and Alex Ovechkin were the players directly behind him.
It’s amazing, in hindsight, that the league-wide perception of Wheeler was more of a “really good top line winger” rather than an elite, play driving attacker, and one of the best right wings in the world. It was only Patrick Kane and Nikita Kucherov who scored more points than him in those three seasons mentioned above.
And somehow, somewhat remarkably, his career high numbers were established on the other side of 30 years old.
At ages 32 and 33, he put up back to back 91 point seasons, including a franchise record 71 assists in 2018-19. It was impressive output for an ageing player who relied so much on his athleticism to produce. That 91 point season was a Jets 2.0 team record until Kyle Connor eclipsed it with 93 points in 2021-22.
Yet the peak of Wheeler’s abilities were somehow underrated. Maybe even under appreciated in Winnipeg, given the talents of Hellebuyck, the captivating ability Dustin Byfuglien had, and the excitement for the future that Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine, and Nikolaj Ehlers represented.
Somehow, when you say his name alongside Connor McDavid, Nikita Kucherov, Patrick Kane, Sidney Crosby, Brad Marchand, Leon Draisatl, Nathan MacKinnon, and Alex Ovechkin, he feels like a player who is a tier below.
Maybe it’s because his longevity as a 90+ point player didn’t quite last, with only two such seasons.
But the stats don’t lie. Wheeler belongs there.
And there’s a reason he is the Winnipeg Jets franchise leader in games played, assists, and points.
The greatest Winnipeg Jets player of all time
Who would have known that when former Atlanta Thrashers general manager Rick Dudley traded for Blake Wheeler at the trade deadline back in 2011, he was acquiring a player who would have a remarkable impact in Winnipeg, not Atlanta.
He only played 23 games for the Thrashers.
But Wheeler was something of a late bloomer, and at the time of relocation, a quality mid-20s player with room to grow. As a six foot five power forward, it was always going to take some time for the ingredients to come together – the hands, the speed, the vision, the size.
Part of Wheeler’s legacy was being an excellent top line player when all the Jets had to support him was Andrew Ladd and Bryan Little, scoring 69 and 61 points while helping the team earn that feel good playoff berth in 2014-15.
But when the Jets had more to give him, Wheeler also found another level. With the Jets’ own elite drafted and developed talent by his side, Wheeler himself found new heights, posting a four year run of 78, 74, 91, and 91 point seasons from 2015-16 through 2018-19.
And remember, the NHL was in a post-lockout scoring lull through the mid-2010s. Wheeler’s 78 point season actually put him 6th in the NHL – hard to believe given today’s scoring environment. His 74 point season saw him place 11th leaguewide.
At the time the Jets were developing an elite forward core, Wheeler himself was cooking into an elite forward.
The ingredients had been in the oven long enough.
Another impressive Wheeler achievement is his ability to stay healthy. For good reason, people love to pro-rate players’ stats when talking about performance and comparisons..
Well, if he would have played 82 games, he was on pace for x points…
Okay, that guy got more points, by if my guy would have played more games…
And so on.
But a team is only good when it’s best players are in the lineup. You can’t impact a hockey game from the press box. And from that lens, Wheeler’s Jets tenure is truly remarkable.
From 2011-12 through 2019-20, the entire prime of his career, he missed six hockey games. Paul Maurice (and Claude Noel) had the luxury of penciling him at right wing a preposterous 99.1% of games. His durability and longevity was impressive, underrated, and a testament to his dedication to the game and his commitment to keeping his body in tip top shape. Or his ability to play through pain.
His statistical profile is no doubt impressive, but that one keeps blowing my mind – that level of consistency is mind boggling.
That being said, his statistical profile shouldn’t be ignored. He was truly prolific.
Which is why he also returns to Winnipeg tonight as the franchise leader in games played, assists, and points.
Wheeler’s name will be near and around the top of the Jets’ franchise leaderboards for years to come. He played 897 games (1st), scored 262 goals (3rd), 550 assists (1st), and 812 points (1st).
It’s unfortunate that lockouts and the pandemic (along with some injuries over his final two years) robbed Wheeler of a chance to play 103 more games over his Jets career. It would have been an amazing feather on the cap of his Jets career if he could have found the 1000 game mark for the franchise. It’s a mark not all franchises have a player hit.
The Oilers and Flames, for example, only have one each – Kevin Lowe and Jarome Iginla.
Regardless, you can only become the franchise leaders in games played, assists, and points, if you decide to be here. If you show up to work and continually decide to commit to the city and the franchise.
Blake Wheeler did that.
He did that in a city that not all NHLers are willing to give a fair shake.
And remember, this was a player who was not afraid to exercise his rights as a player within the CBA. After being chosen 5th overall in 2004 by the Phoenix Coyotes, for whatever reason, Wheeler chose to play out his post-draft career in college, becoming a free agent and eventually signing with the Boston Bruins. He was well aware of and willing to use his rights to direct his future and play for a city and organization he considered worthy.
Well, 897 games later, 262 goals, and 812 points later, it appears that the Winnipeg Jets were deemed worthy.
And Wheeler, worthy of the longest standing ovation the crowd at the Canada Life Centre can muster.