WINNIPEG – Blake Wheeler has made himself look good this season by doing his best to make those around him look better.
Heading into Tuesday’s game against Flyers, Wheeler had just 11 goals, but his 35 assists put him in a tie for 14th in the league.
This week, the league noticed what his teammates have been saying for some time, naming him the NHL’s second star after he recorded a goal and seven assists in four games.
“I think he deserves a lot more recognition for what he’s done for the team,” said centre Bryan Little. “He comes every night to battle and compete. He’s playing great. This is the best hockey I’ve ever seen him play.”
Although he’s only 26, the native of Robbinsdale, Minn., brings more experience to the Jets than many of his teammates. He spent 2 1/2 seasons with the Boston Bruins before he was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers midway through last season.
His best before this one was his first with Boston in 2008-2009, when he had 45 points, more evenly split with 21 goals and 24 assists.
At six foot five and just over 200 pounds, he also brings much-needed size to the Jets’ offence and is a hard player to stop when he drives to the net.
Coach Claude Noel has been drilling the team concept into his players since they moved north from Atlanta and no one seems to get it better than Wheeler.
“That’s when you play your best, when you’re focused on more the team concept and not worried about so much how you’re playing yourself,” said Wheeler.
“That’s what makes being a member of a team a beautiful thing,” Noel added.
“With Blake, he has confidence right now, he’s going good . . . I just think he wants to win, he wants to play and he wants to help his team.”
Of course, a little personal success isn’t a bad thing either. And his point total is sure to grow with 20 games left in the regular season.
“I think I’ve been going obviously in a good direction, I don’t think I’ve plateaued,” Wheeler said. “I think I’m capable of more and I think this sort of hockey, pushing for a playoff spot, has brought out the best in me.”
The Jets haven’t exactly made a reputation as a high scoring team this season but Wheeler says it’s not that they can’t be one.
“We’ve kind of had stretches of scoring a lot of goals, we’ve had stretches of not scoring a lot of goals.”
But he agrees with Noel that their key to success is consistent play.
Still, scoring five like they did in Sunday’s win against Colorado, while giving up only one, does lift a forward’s spirits just a little, Wheeler admits.
“It feels good to finally put some in the net,” he said. “It kind of relieves some of the pressure for some guys. You don’t grip the stick quite as tight.”