Who’s the first player that pops into your mind when you think of the Winnipeg Jets? Is it Evander Kane? How about Dustin Byfuglien? It may even be captain Andrew Ladd or goaltender Ondrej Pavelec – though, that last one may not be for the best reasons.
The reasons why people love Kane and Byfuglien are plentiful and obvious. They’re big, they can score, and they seem like, maybe more than anyone in the entire league, they both have an incredible amount of fun on the ice. That's infectious. Take Kane’s fight during Winnipeg’s game against Pittsburgh, for instance. He’s laughing – smiling wide – as he and Penguins defenseman Simon Despres trade punches.
But when it comes to players that have become as much a part of the Jets fabric as anyone, you can’t look past Blake Wheeler. When Wheeler is on, so are the Jets. Without him, you can’t help but think this team would be deeper in the conversation about draft picks than they are playoff spots.
His passion for the team is evident. Asked last season after a 6-4 loss to the Dallas Stars about the team’s performance, Wheeler let it all out.
"What I say doesn't matter," Wheeler said. "It's what you do out on the ice. You can blow smoke as much as you want out in the media; we've been blowing smoke for three years. Me and everyone who has stood in front of a microphone for three years, we've said the same thing. What do you want me to say? That's about it. I don't really know what else to say."
But here’s the thing about Wheeler: he has done it all on the ice for the Jets. He led the team last season with 28 goals and 69 points, played nearly 19 minutes a night, and this season he’s shown an edge to his game that has rarely been seen, for better or worse. In addition, on a Jets team that has been abysmal at putting the puck in the net, Wheeler is doing everything to put the team on his back, already on pace to break his career high in goals.
Though the jerseys of Kane, Byfuglien, Ladd, and even Bryan Little are commonplace throughout the MTS Centre, Wheeler’s number 26 is popping up more and with good reason. Wheeler, who is now in his second season of a six-year, $33.6 million deal, looks like he’s coming into his own.
At 6-foot-5, 225 lbs., Wheeler is immensely gifted when it comes to physical size and speed. Most players who have a similar frame don’t boast the same mobility and when Wheeler gets his feet moving, he’s like a runaway train – nearly impossible to stop. Much like Byfuglien has made a living by driving wide and carrying the puck around opposing defenders, Wheeler has done the same by bursting down the wing with speed and entering the offensive zone, often times uncontested.
He has been steady, and at times incredible, at possessing the puck for Winnipeg, too. This season is the first in which his defensive starts are heavily outweighing his offensive starts, and Wheeler is still finding ways to drive the puck up the ice. It’s a skill that doesn’t show up on the score sheet, but his consistency driving the puck up ice has been a godsend for a Jets team that is lacking offense.
All this is to say the 28-year-old is undoubtedly in the prime of his career right now and becoming the face of a franchise that needs a player of his ilk. He’s on pace to set his career-high for goals and, if he can start getting a secondary assist here and there, could challenge last year’s career-high of 69 points. With every passing game it becomes increasingly evident that, as Blake Wheeler goes, so do the Jets.
The story in Winnipeg continues to be when – if it hasn’t already happened – will the bloom wear off the rose. The team is no longer new, they’ve failed to contend, and GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has done little in the way of bringing new talent to the roster outside of the draft. But there’s an oversight in that talk, and that’s that Wheeler committed. He bought in when few else have.
Traded to Atlanta late in the 2010-11 season as part of the deal that brought Rich Peverley to Boston, Wheeler was part of the team that played the Jets inaugural season. He’ll likely be in Winnipeg until he’s approaching his mid-30s, if not longer. And in a city that prides itself on being more than anyone thinks or believes it can be, Wheeler’s play on the ice embodies that spirit of Manitoba’s capital.
While he may not be the most marquee star, in the Heart of the Continent, Wheeler’s the heart and soul.