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A higher standard: Jets' Wheeler sees no reason he can't age like a fine wine

Blake Wheeler has been raising the bar on his performance and output just about every season to the point he set a career high at 31.

Not once over the course of Brooks Laich’s 13-season NHL career did he pull on a Winnipeg Jets jersey, but if they haven’t already done so, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff and the Jets’ front office should consider sending Laich a fruit basket or a thank-you card. After all, in a roundabout way, it’s Laich who helped spark Blake Wheeler’s superstar turn.

It happened during a 15-second span of heart-in-your-throat hockey on Nov. 17, 2011, in Winnipeg. Midway through the second period, Laich, then with the Washington Capitals, fired a shot high and wide during a shorthanded break. The resulting loose puck was corralled by the Jets’ Bryan Little, who made an up-ice pass that was scooped up by a hard-charging Wheeler. The 6-foot-5 winger proceeded to blow by one defender, fight through another and slip the puck past netminder Michal Neuvirth.

That goal, Wheeler’s first of the season in the Jets’ 19th game of their inaugural campaign in Winnipeg, is a moment he pinpoints as a turning point in his career without even the slightest hint of hesitation. Before that goal, Wheeler admitted, he was battling through one of the most difficult stretches of his career. “It was my chance to grab onto a top-six role, play a big role, and I found myself playing on the fourth line,” Wheeler said. “Things weren’t going well. It was a real shot in the gut. You had to look in the mirror and figure out how you’re going to get out of it. I started working harder than I ever had and had some success doing that.”

That’s a modest assessment of his play, to say the least, as that first goal in a Jets uniform at age 25 seemed to unlock something. Over the remainder of 2011-12, he scored 17 goals and 57 points in 62 games. And from the time of that goal against the Capitals through to the start of2018-19, only seven players – Jamie Benn, Sidney Crosby, Claude Giroux, Patrick Kane, Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and John Tavares – have outscored Wheeler, who has 165 goals and 471 points in 515 regular-season games over that span.

Wheeler, 32, sticks out among that group. For one, he’s without a doubt the most underrated and least heralded of the bunch. But he’s also the only one who rose to stardom with a team other than the one with which he broke into the NHL. In February 2011, Wheeler was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers by Boston as part of a cap-clearing deal that allowed for the acquisition of Tomas Kaberle from Toronto.

Months later, Wheeler was headed north as part of the franchise’s relocation. Moving twice in such a short span could have shaken the then-25-year-old, but Wheeler said going from Boston to Atlanta and onto Winnipeg happened “at the right time in my career.”

“It gave me an opportunity, which is half the battle sometimes,” Wheeler said. “I was able to make some mistakes and grow into myself. I’m fortunate that I’ve had the type of people around me that we have here supporting me and giving me what I need to make myself a better player.”

But as good as Winnipeg was for Wheeler’s growth as a player, it’s also the primary cause of his relative anonymity among the game’s elite. Winnipeg is Canada’s smallest NHL market and far removed from the bright lights of media megalopolises such as Toronto, New York and Boston. The local pressure exists, but the national and league-wide spotlight shines elsewhere. Not that Wheeler cares. “That’s why a lot of people find this place attractive,” he said. “It’s guys that really don’t care about the glamour, the fame, the stardom.”

Be that as it may, his accomplishments haven’t been lost on those who’ve watched him develop, and the rest of the league is taking notice, too. That started around the time the Jets made the no-brainer decision to stitch the ‘C’ to Wheeler’s jersey ahead of 2016-17, which came complete with a nomination for the Mark Messier Leadership Award last season.

And with free agency looming and on the heels of some late-season chatter of Hart Trophy candidacy, the Jets rewarded Wheeler with a five-year, $41.25-million pact that kicks in next season. To some, it’s seen as a risky contract, one that will pay top dollar to a player soon to enter his mid-30s. Stoically, Wheeler dismissed those concerns. “Each year you gain a bit more wisdom about what’s going on, how it works and what gives guys success,” Wheeler said. “For me, I feel like I still have room to grow, and as long as I keep working to realize that, I expect to continue to get better.”

And how does Wheeler plan to do that? “I can’t tell you my secrets,” he said with a smirk.

His play the past several seasons says it all. The secret is already out.

ONES THAT GOT AWAY

ANAHEIM DUCKS: The Ducks struck upon a good thing nabbing William Karlsson in the second round in 2011. He was a small center and advanced from ninth to sixth to third on the Ducks’ list of prospects in subsequent years. But he went to Columbus for James Wisniewski in a 2015 trade-deadline deal.

ARIZONA COYOTES: Devan Dubnyk was at rock bottom when he passed through Arizona. The 14th pick in 2004 wore out welcomes in Edmonton, Nashville and Montreal and stumbled in the AHL before signing in 2014. Arizona traded him for a third-round pick despite his .916 SP in 19 games.

CALGARY FLAMES: Rob Ramage was a key cog (and Rick Wamsley a reliable backup) in Calgary’s march to the 1989 Cup. But the cost to get those stalwarts was staggering. Brett Hull, 23, was 57 games into his career when he went to St. Louis in that 1988 trade. He’s fourth on the NHL’s all-time goals list.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: Losing Dominik Hasek was forgivable – the Blackhawks had Ed Belfour at the time – but nothing can alleviate the pain of trading Phil Esposito in 1967. Pit Martin was the only impactful player Chicago received. Esposito won five scoring titles, two MVPs and two Stanley Cups in Boston.

COLORADO AVALANCHE: The Nordiques picked first overall in 1989, ’90 and ’91 and later traded all three players. One deal blew up on them: Mats Sundin to Toronto in 1994. The best player Quebec received, Wendel Clark, was back in Toronto two years later, while Sundin became the Leafs’ all-time top scorer.

DALLAS STARS: The Jarome Iginla trade yielded Joe Nieuwendyk and a Stanley Cup, so it was worth it. But the 1983 draft didn’t work out nearly as well. In selecting mega-bust Brian Lawton first overall, the Minnesota North Stars passed on franchise centers Pat Lafontaine and Steve Yzerman.

EDMONTON OILERS: The Oilers can talk about their need for a defensive rock in 2016, but giving up a stud and future Hart Trophy winner in Taylor Hall was inexcusable. Adam Larsson is young and steady, but he isn’t getting Norris Trophy votes and doesn’t play top-pair minutes in Edmonton.

LOS ANGELES KINGS: There was no good reason to trade 22-year-old Larry Murphy for two vets in 1983. The Kings weren’t even a playoff team when they moved him for Brian Engblom, 28, and Ken Houston, 30. And Murphy was coming off terrific seasons of 76, 66 and 62 points on the L.A. blueline.

MINNESOTA WILD:Brent Burns for Devin Setoguchi and Charlie Coyle? Minnesota would love a mulligan on that 2011 draft-weekend deal. As a San Jose Shark, Burns became one of two defensemen in the past 22 seasons to finish top-10 in league scoring, and he won the Norris Trophy in 2016-17.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS: GM David Poile has pulled some all-time trade heists, but the early returns on his 2016 Seth Jones-for-Ryan Johansen blockbuster suggest Poile will take an ‘L.’ Johansen hasn’t become the bona fide No. 1 center Nashville needs, while Jones looks like a perennial Norris contender.

SAN JOSE SHARKS: The Sharks were flush with goalies in the early 2000s, and for three years Vesa Toskala and Miikka Kiprusoff battled for the job behind Evgeni Nabokov. ‘Kipper’ was dealt to Calgary for a second-round pick. Solace came in the fact the pick turned into Marc-Edouard Vlasic.

ST. LOUIS BLUES: Might the Blues have won a Cup in the 1990s had they not traded Adam Oates? He helped Brett Hull to 72, 86 and 70 goals from 1989-90 to ’91-92, but a contract dispute got Oates shipped out of St. Louis after two-and-a-half years, divorcing a superstar passer-shooter duo.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS: Pavel Bure left Vancouver too soon at 27 in 1999, but didn’t really “get away.” Cam Neely, on the other hand, truly slipped away. Neely hadn’t done much in three NHL seasons when he was traded to Boston on his 21st birthday with a first-round pick for 100-point man Barry Pederson.

VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS: Three early draft picks. Vegas was so seduced by exceeding expectations as an expansion team that it got ahead of itself at the trade deadline. It foolishly added Tomas Tatar and his big ticket from Detroit for a first-, second- and third-round draft pick. Tatar was a flop in Vegas.

WINNIPEG JETS: Vancouver drafted Daniel and Henrik Sedin at Nos. 2 and 3 in 1999 after the Atlanta Thrashers said they wouldn’t use the No. 1 pick on either twin. They took all-time bust Patrik Stefan. Atlanta got Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk in ensuing drafts. Imagine if it had a Sedin, too.

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