Since the start of the season, something has looked off about Blake Wheeler. He is still racking up the points, but he just does not seem to be himself. Is he injured or is something deeper going on.
To properly evaluate Wheeler, I am starting with two seasons ago. This was the team’s first season without Andrew Ladd and with Patrik Laine. It was also Wheeler’s last season playing with Bryan Little. While Little got hurt early in the season, it was the Wheeler/Little line that was key for the Jets while Scheifele was tasked with helping the kids (Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers) acclimatize to the NHL. This was also Wheeler’s best season in the past three seasons.
As you can see, Wheeler was simply phenomenal for the Jets that season. He was 8.18% better at generating shots towards the net than the team as a whole. When Wheeler was on the ice, the Jets were most likely playing offence and that is a major boon to the team. It was this iteration of Wheeler that many fans said was an underrated player. He was an offensive driver as well as a strong defensive player. Wheeler led the one-man break-out, much like Ehlers does today when he is at his best.
When did it all start to come apart? Is it possible that Wheeler was at his best when the Jets were at their worst? It is easier to be better than the rest of the team when the team is bad, but Wheeler was legitimately good. So what happened to him over the past two seasons that led to him falling off the cliff this year?
Last year Wheeler was below the team when it came to CorsiRel, but completely fine when it came to his individual Corsi. This means that he was below the team when it came to Corsi, but still an average player who moves the puck up the ice. It would be fair to assume that his turn at centre, where he produced points but struggled to push the play, would be an explanation for his downturn there. Still, he has good possession numbers and did not look to be close to falling off the cliff. And then this season happened.
Granted, this year could is currently being influenced by the small sample size. However, Wheeler’s current possession numbers should concern anyone.
The point totals that Wheeler have are five on five only and that is the same for his possession numbers. For comparisons sake, Laine only has one assist five on five so he also has a lot to improve upon, but he is not Wheeler.
The concern with Wheeler’s possession numbers is when a player stops scoring five on five, they can still be useful if they are a strong possession player who can produce on the power play or play on the penalty kill. Wheeler is fine on the special teams, but he is killing the Jets five on five. Well under 50% Corsi and well below team average should give anyone a pause. Wheeler is also 32, roughly seven years past the prime of a player’s career. Tyler Dellow highlighted the concerns surrounding Wheeler’s new contract in relation to his five on five production.
The one question I have is about Wheeler’s health. If he is injured, and he is playing like he is, then the Jets need to sit him until he is healthy. If he is trying to play through it, they need to realize that will only hurt them more long term to have Wheeler playing hurt. The other option is to move him away from Mark Scheifele and to try him on a different line. With all the line shuffling that has happened recently, Wheeler has not moved. Everyone else has except for him.
If Wheeler is healthy, he should not be moved from the first unit power play as he is still racking up points there. However, the unit needs more variety and should have Josh Morrissey back there to have more people setting up Laine’s shot while still being threats themselves. He is producing on the power play, so it makes sense to not move him from there. But he needs a change or if he is hurt, he needs to sit.
It is hard to say what is actually wrong with Blake Wheeler. It is easy to see that there is something wrong with him this season and that if it is not an injury, the Jets need to help him five on five by moving him to a position that will allow him to take on less responsibility defensively. Wheeler can still contribute at the NHL level, but he is clearly not the player he was two years ago and his usage needs to reflect that.