A team's leaders should be the ones who set the tone for their teammates. In the Winnipeg Jets first three games, with an "A" incrusted on his chest, Blake Wheeler has set the bar high for his fellow teammates. On the team’s season opening three game road trip, Wheeler recorded 3 points in 3 games and has arguably been the Jets best player.
Jets coach Paul Maurice praised Wheeler's efforts thus far;
"We have come to expect and appreciate (Wheeler's) level of intensity in games…He's playing hard. He competes every shift, he practices hard. That's just great leadership by him.."
Though it has only been three games and the season is just getting underway, Wheeler's strong start is somewhat out of the ordinary for him. Over the last few years for the Jets, Wheeler's slow starts had become a thing of folklore.
In the Jets inaugural season, Wheeler started out the season cold and eventually saw him receive a brief demotion to the Jets fourth line. Wheeler recorded 7 points in his first 18 games of the 2011-2012 season.
Despite his initial dip in production, Wheeler finished the year strong with a team leading 64 points thanks to a spectacular December in which saw him record 15 points in 14 games.
This year Wheeler did not start out this year slow. In the NHL lockout 48 game shortened season, Blake Wheeler entered the season in midseason form in large part due to him playing overseas in the DEL league during the lockout.
With months to prepare for the shortened NHL season, Wheeler entered the year flying high and started out with a bang. Wheeler recorded 41 points this season and finished second in scoring for the Jets.
Last season, Wheeler started off the year with 6 points in 11 games, but Wheeler's stats were not the sole reason for fan concern. When he had the puck, he seemed to lack confidence and he didn’t seem to be driving to the net with the puck, something he is very well known for.
Wheeler was also criticized for not shooting the puck enough in critical and obvious shooting situations.
Despite this, Wheeler got hot once again and finished the year with a team leading 69 points.
Wheeler has not been shy to admit his early season troubles.
"I haven't been great about the last couple years, for whatever reason, I've gotten off to slow starts…Collectively as a team, we've been guilty of that as well. I want to come in in great shape, have a really strong camp, play well in the preseason and then have that carry over into the first game."
Wheeler accomplished the modest goals that he set before camp and it is no coincidence that Wheeler's lack of fast start comes after Coach Paul Maurice preached a high fitness level to his players heading into last offseason and for the duration of this years training camp.
If Wheeler can contribute to the Jets through a full 82 game schedule, his expected ceiling will surely increase.
With the recent loss of Evander Kane due to injury, the Jets are counting on Wheeler to provide even more leadership and offense on the teams top line. Wheeler showed great intensity and leadership in the Jets season opener when dropping the gloves in an effort to stand up for teammate Mark Scheifele after Scheifele suffered a hard hit. He recorded his first career Gordie Howe Hat trick in that outing.
"That's part of the game….Scheifs is a valuable, young guy on our team." Said Wheeler. Wheeler added he wished he had dropped the gloves a different time in similar circumstances. "He got hit last year in a similar hit and we lost him for the season. Looking back on it, I wish I would have done something about it last year, too."
Having someone like Wheeler, who is a proven 60+ point NHL scorer, stand up for a teammate like that is something for other teams to admire. Though the Jets would not like Wheeler to often make trips to the sin bin for a 5 minute rest, when the right time comes along even a top player on a team can stand up for a teammate and create a spark for the team.
Wheeler will be looking to extend his hot start beyond three games tonight.