For the past two or three years writing Blake Wheeler’s season reviews has been hard. On one hand he has production and seemed to be driving play. But he was starting to fall off the cliff and it was tough to thread the needle between that and the fact that he was still scoring. That is staring us in the face now and it has not been pretty to watch.
This has been an ongoing issue that reared its head this season as it seemed like Wheeler was playing injured and Paul Maurice doubled down on the fact that Wheeler was fine and there was nothing wrong. However, it is clear that there has been something there for a while now and it is called aging.
Aging happens to the best of us. Wheeler has been hit by aging mostly on his 5 on 5 play. He is not a bad player, but he is not worth his $8.25 million cap hit through 2023-2024. It was a bad contract when he signed it for that reason and remains one to this day. We know players start aging around 25 and that around 30 is when the decline can hit hard. Wheeler was being written about as someone who could defy the aging curve because it wasn’t showing up yet. And then it did.
The Jets have worked hard to pretend Wheeler is still the player he was five years ago when he isn’t that player anymore. He has been put in a position where he cannot age gracefully due to his contract and the insistence that he is the first line right winger most nights. This ignores the fact that Nikolaj Ehlers is the better player at 5 on 5 and should be getting those opportunities. It potentially over-taxes Wheeler and makes him a less effective yet (a working hypothesis) instead of playing him in easier usage and optimizing what he still has going for him to it’s full ability.
Wheeler is starting to look a lot better than when I started writing this at the start of February. That was a process marred by me teaching art for a few weeks, but the sentiment remains the same: Wheeler needs to have his responsibilities lessened in order for him to have a greater impact on the game itself. He is still a good player, but he is not the player he was when he signed his contract. The issue is his usage is for that player and not the player he was five years ago. It was a bad contract for the Jets and they could be making it better by using Wheeler less. They aren’t and it is hurting them overall.