The Jets captain looks at their forward depth and strength in goal, and he sees good things ahead as Winnipeg prepares to compete in the realigned North Division against the six other teams based in Canada (Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks).
The Jets were the only NHL team last season to have five forwards each score more than 50 points. Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor scored 73 apiece, followed by Wheeler (65), Patrik Laine (63) and Nikolaj Ehlers (58). Paul Stastny, acquired in a trade with the Vegas Golden Knights on Oct. 9, scored 38 points (17 goals, 21 assists) in 71 games, so coach Paul Maurice has options in how to deploy his forwards.
Connor Hellebuyck was voted winner of the Vezina Trophy as the best goalie in the NHL after going 31-21-5 with a 2.52 goals-against average and .922 save percentage. He is 27 and in the prime of his career.
“I think we look at our roster and we have a pretty good goaltender and we have some guys that took some great steps on the back end … guys that you can now put into your lineup and be really confident in them in their roles as NHL defensemen,” Wheeler said. “And our forward group, it’s all going to be about how Paul deploys us. Our forward group, we’ve shown that we do some damage.”
The Jets lost 325 man-games due to injuries last season, and their defense was unsettled while coping with the departures of Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot and Dustin Byfuglien. However, they qualified for the postseason (37-28-6, .563 points percentage) before losing in four games to the Calgary Flames in the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
Wheeler, who has been captain since the start of the 2016-17 season, scored 65 points (22 goals, 43 assists) in 71 games last season. He is fifth in NHL scoring since the start of the 2013-14 season with 529 points (171 goals, 358 assists) in 559 games, behind Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks and Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins (each with 598 points), Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning (547) and Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals (543).
The 34-year-old has heard some recent talk about his age and his offense, which dropped from 1.11 points per game in 2018-19 to .92 points per game last season but said he’ll let his play do the talking.
“I think sometimes in the position of being a captain, the spotlight shines brightest on you,” he said. “I think it’s part of the job, actually. I’m happy to take the heat.”
Wheeler, who has 761 points (264 goals, 497 assists) in 931 NHL games during 12 seasons with the Boston Bruins and the Atlanta Thrashers/Jets franchise, addressed a wide range of topics in a recent Q&A with NHL.com:
What’s the focus for the coming season?
“I think we have a group that the people here really believe in, a group that’s had some success and had some of those hard lessons that you have to learn in the playoffs and competing for a championship. Some of those things you don’t know until you go through them and learn. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think that all the teams that have won recently … it’s taken them a while. There haven’t been any teams that have just jumped on the scene and won it without going through that.”
Do you share Paul Maurice’s view that this season is about regaining traction, that many of the forwards like Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers on your team are coming of age?
“I re-signed here for a reason. It wasn’t for the weather, I’ll tell you that. [My wife] Sam and I certainly have learned to love this community and the people here. Our kids love it here. Those are all real positives, but you don’t re-sign somewhere for five years unless you think you can win. We have a handful of guys who have committed long term with that thought in mind — that we’re committing to this because we think this team has a chance to win. Unfortunately, it seems that history is showing us that winning in this League is a process, that it’s not just about talent and getting really good really quick and cashing in. Last year was sobering for a lot of reasons. A lot of situations out of our control happened, which made it a really challenging year. If anything, it needs to show this group that these opportunities aren’t just going to keep happening, that you can’t take them for granted. Playing in the Western Conference Final a couple of years ago, we were that group that just burst onto the scene and tried to make a push for it. We’ve had some success, we’ve had those failures and now you’ve got to keep taking steps if you’re going to challenge for the ultimate prize.”
The North Division, with all teams based in Canada, is a topic creating a lot of buzz right now. How do you see the division?
“It’s probably great for fans, especially for the ones up here. Having lived here as long as we have, you seem to know that people here have friends and family in every major city around the country, so there are bragging rights at stake. It seems like there’s a lot of excitement surrounding it around our town. I’m sure that sentiment is shared across the country. So it could be something that’s pretty cool and obviously unique and probably a one-time thing. Some of our biggest games of the year, the loudest, are against Canadian teams. It seems to be a great buzz in the building and the fans really get up for those games. I’ve gotten the sense that it’s something people are looking forward to.”
Prior to the start of last season, you said you had done a self-examination of the blend of your personal life and hockey life. What’s been the result?
“With my kids being as young as they were (Louie is 8, Leni 5 and Mace 3), just the focus of being an NHL player, I think sometimes you get caught up in that. For me, certainly I have a lot of responsibility here. My role on the team, the contracts that I’ve been given, the leadership role I have on the team, it’s really easy to get caught up in your work. To be an elite player is all-consuming. It’s your life. Every decision you make throughout the day revolves around being an elite athlete. So I just found I’d been doing that for a long time. At a certain point in every career, there’s a reset that needs to take place, to kind of re-evaluate your goals and your place and try to rearrange what’s the most important to you. I think before last season, I realized what the most important thing to me is. Being a Winnipeg Jet is everything to me, but if I’m coming home and I’m not able to be what I need to be for Sam and my kids then it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day. It’s a concerted effort for me not to bring home my work and not carry a tough day at the office home and sort of be grouchy around the house. It’s an area I’ve improved for sure, (though) you’d have to ask my wife. I think it’s always been a priority to me to try to help Sam out, be there for the kids. But it’s not easy to wear both hats all the time. Once I leave the rink, I’ve done a better job of leaving that there and still trying to maintain the level and the standard that I’ve set for myself professionally.”