If you’re putting together a list of the most underrated scorers in the NHL, Blake Wheeler would probably rank close to the top.
For the last four seasons, he’s scored at least 26 goals, and he’s only missed three games during that entire span. The 31-year-old seems to be growing into his well-earned role as Winnipeg Jets captain about a year after he was given the “C.”
Of course, when you’re a team’s captain, you likely hear about it when … say, they’ve never won a single playoff game as a franchise.
As fantastic as Wheeler can be, that must eat at him. He expressed such a sentiment to reporters including the Winnipeg Free Press’ Jason Bell this past week.
“It’s gotta be this year, it just has to be,” Wheeler said. “We have enough talent. There’s no reason why we can’t push this to the next level this year. It’s going to be about getting this group together and figuring out how we have to play to win hockey games.”
Wheeler, like just about anyone, acknowledged that the Jets need better goaltending. On paper, the team addressed that issue by finally – mercifully – saying goodbye to Ondrej Pavelec while bringing in Steve Mason. The Mason – Connor Hellebuyck pairing stands as the best duo of Wheeler’s time with Winnipeg/Atlanta.
That could be faint praise, especially if Wheeler & Co. hang their goalies out to dry, as has been a problem for this Jets team at times.
Even if their defense struggles, the bar isn’t too high for an improvement in Winnipeg’s own end. The Jets’ team save percentage was the fourth-worst in the NHL in 2016-17. If the Jets can generate chances on par with their usual efforts – quite reasonable when you consider quality veterans such as Wheeler alongside rising young talent including Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers – then merely average goaltending might propel them to new heights.
Such a scenario would be ideal, as it’s likely that Wheeler isn’t the only one who’s losing patience with the glacial pace of the Jets’ improvement.