The upper-body injury suffered by Mark Scheifele in the first game following the holiday break was by no means supposed to be a deathblow to the Jets’ incredibly promising campaign, but few would have been shocked to see Winnipeg struggle to find its footing in the few games that followed. Regardless of the considerable depth the Jets possess, the prevailing thought for some was that, no matter the team, the loss of a top-line pivot requires an adjustment period throughout the lineup.
Yet, in the six games that have followed Scheifele’s injury — seven if you include the half game he missed after his shoulder-first collision with the boards — there is but a single blemish on the Jets’ record, and even the one loss came in overtime, allowing Winnipeg to take their defeat with at least one point added to their Central Division-leading total. There are no doubt a few reasons for the Jets’ success in Scheifele’s absence. The aforementioned depth is one. The goaltending of Connor Hellebuyck is another. The returns of Dustin Byfuglien and Toby Enstrom from injuries of their own have also been a boon to an already steady blueline. But the prime reason for Winnipeg’s continued success despite the loss of their top-line center and still-evolving star is the play of Blake Wheeler, who should be garnering much more attention and consideration as the league’s most valuable player this season.
Now, that’s not to say Wheeler isn’t getting any attention, nor is it to suggest Wheeler as a Hart Trophy candidate is some sort of seismic leap. Based on statistics alone, Wheeler is almost certainly in the running given he’s tied for second in the league in both assists and points, with totals of 38 and 52 in the respective categories. But digging below the surface into Wheeler’s numbers paints a picture of a player who has really taken the wheel and driven the Jets’ offense at times.
Consider that Wheeler’s rate of production has been among the very best in the league. Of the 410 players who have skated at least 500 minutes this season, Wheeler’s 3.49 points per 60 minutes is the 13th-best mark in the league, only slightly behind that of John Tavares and Brock Boeser, but better than the likes of Alexander Ovechkin, Patrick Kane and Connor McDavid. It’s not as if Wheeler has had his point total puffed up by secondary assists, either. In fact, only Nikita Kucherov and Nathan MacKinnon have more primary points than Wheeler, while MacKinnon is the only top-10 scorer who has had a greater percentage of points come from primary sources — goals or first assists.
Of course, in the interest of transparency, it’s worth noting that Wheeler’s numbers aren’t quite up there with the Kucherovs, Stamkoses and MacKinnons when it comes to 5-on-5 numbers, though the Jets captain still has been effective at five-a-side. Wheeler has 27 points, good for 2.19 points per 60 minutes, when teams are playing at 5-on-5, the latter of which good enough to rank 46th of the 290 skaters to play at least 500 minutes. But, in the same breath, it’s difficult to overlook Wheeler’s effectiveness on special teams. He has 22 points with the man advantage and one shorthanded assist — the only players with more combined points are Steven Stamkos and Phil Kessel. And that he’s been a fixture on both units, though much more sparingly used in penalty killing situations, has made him one of the most heavily relied upon forwards in the entire league. Only 13 forwards have a greater average ice time than Wheeler, who is averaging 20:19 per game.
Wheeler’s value, however, goes beyond pure points. And though it might be a more abstract definition of value than goals and assists, which are the most tangible measures of a player’s performance, what Wheeler has been asked to do and achieved in Scheifele’s absence shouldn’t be discounted. In most instances, on most teams, an injury to a top-line center would have resulted in a shift throughout the lineup. To wit, the second-line center becomes the first-line center, the third-line center moves up to second-line duty and so on. It’s a recipe for line-juggling. But in Winnipeg, when Scheifele went on the injured reserve, coach Paul Maurice’s ask of Wheeler was that he move into the middle of the ice and become the team’s top-line center. To be sure, such a move — shifting a top-line winger to top-line center duty — would be a rarity for a healthy two-thirds of the league.
Wheeler has responded, though, with nothing short of brilliance. In his first game as the Jets’ first-line center, Wheeler notched two points against the New York Islanders. He followed that up with a goal against the Edmonton Oilers, two goals against the Colorado Avalanche, including the late game-tying goal, and has since continued his scoring streak, which is now at seven games, with five points in his past three contests. And while true that the possession numbers haven’t been there — something that has been as issue for the Jets’ top unit all season — the results, plain and simple, have, and often while Wheeler’s line has been playing against the opposition’s best line. His ability to provide that kind of stability on a team that has greater aspirations this season than in any campaign since their arrival in Winnipeg speaks to how valuable he has been beyond his offensive production.
Does Wheeler surpass Kucherov, the mid-season favorite, in Hart voting by the end of the season, though? Will the Jets captain beat out Stamkos, MacKinnon, Tavares, Ovechkin or even goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy? The reality is that without pairing his performance with the Art Ross Trophy, chances are Wheeler won’t. But by the time the end of the season rolls around and Winnipeg punches their ticket to the post-season, don’t be surprised if you hear chants of MVP directed at Wheeler echoing throughout Bell MTS Place. And those chants will have been well earned.
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