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It’s time to stop labeling Blake Wheeler as underrated

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Shortly after Blake Wheeler exploded for a career-high five-point night on Friday, the labels began to flow from the mouths of those affiliated with the Winnipeg Jets.

In a paraphrased sentence of several combined players and a coach, it looked like this:

“Blake Wheeler is an elite player, the heartbeat of Jets and the guy who drives the bus.”

If we are to extrapolate on this joint statement of sorts, we can glean that Wheeler enjoys high regard among his closest peers, is the most vital organ to his NHL team and the man who leads its charge.

Of course, a five-point night from anyone in the NHL will often lead to superlatives by the truckload. And Wheeler undoubtedly deserved the due recognition he received from his teammates after a special night at the rink.

The thing is, his teammates and coaches have always known. They see his work ethic and what the 32-year-old puts in so that he’s able to produce at the level he does. It’s normal to hear those closest to a team heap praise on their comrades.

But pilling on plaudits outside of Winnipeg’s sphere? It hasn’t always been the case for the Jets captain.

Wheeler’s underrated status has tagged alongside him for much of his career. The argument can be made that, up until last year, Wheeler was known as a good player — a productive power forward — but not one that came with the same clout as, say, a Nikita Kucherov.

Then Wheeler hit 91 points, tied for the NHL lead in assists with 63 and finished eighth in Hart Trophy voting last season. Many started to wake up to Wheeler’s worth, even if he was a near-point-per-game player for several seasons prior.

The highlights from Friday night’s game were a clinic on what an elite passer looks like. Wheeler’s nine-game point streak is nothing to scoff at.

Yet, the underrated label endures. Last week, Wheeler was voted the third-most underrated player in the NHL by 61 of his peers, behind Aleksander Barkov and Nicklas Backstrom. Given that Wheeler has always seemed to operate in the shadows of the league’s top righties, it wasn’t all that surprising.

What might surprise you to know that since 2011, Wheeler has the third most assists among right-handed shots in the NHL, behind only Claude Giroux and Patrick Kane, neither of whom would be categorized as underrated.

There’s more, too. In all situations, here’s where Wheeler sits in a variety of categories during that time frame.

  • Primary points/60: 3rd
  • Primary assists/60: 1st
  • Primary assists: 1st (226)
  • Points/60: 5th
  • Expected goals-for: 3rd

I suspect if you polled players for each position around the league as to who they think of first when they hear ‘Winnipeg Jets’, it might go something like this:

Furthermore, I’d venture a guess that many fans outside of Winnipeg might levy similar answers, too.

Perhaps Wheeler falls victim to a little of the ‘East Coast Bias’ we often hear about.

Taylor Hall, for instance, admitted on the Spitting Chicklets podcast last week that he probably benefited from some of that bias when it came pipping Nathan MacKinnon to the Hart Trophy last year.

It’s possible Wheeler, a fellow Central Division player like MacKinnon, gets overshadowed in that regard as well.

Why?

“I don’t have an answer for you on that,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said on Saturday.

Maurice has opened the taps of praise for Wheeler many times during his Jets tenure. Maurice says Wheeler’s dominance isn’t lost in coaching circles.

“I know that other coaches do [notice Wheeler],” Maurice said. “So when you’re at the coaches meetings in the summer or you have colleagues you talk to, especially guys after you play, it’s like, ‘My god, Blake Wheeler is a dominant man out there.’ And they really see it, probably because he didn’t have a 50-goal season at 21 or 22 that brought the spotlight to him.

“He really built his game over the years, maybe in kind of the way Mark Scheifele did it early on in the first two or three [years]. He didn’t explode in his first few years. They are always very exciting young players that come in and put up numbers that are designated superstars from a young age. I think Blake has built this. He’s built his body to a machine that can drive as hard as anybody I’ve ever coached. And all of that has led to the skills I think he always possessed coming out.”


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Buzzer: Wheeler keeps dealing; big apples

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Three Stars

1. Blake Wheeler

What a night for the wildly underrated Winnipeg Jets captain.

Wheeler scored a goal and four assists, crossing 400 for his (again, wildly underrated) career. That milestone helper came as he read Nathan MacKinnon to create a turnover and set the table for Nikolaj Ehlers. Three of Wheeler’s four assists were primary helpers, too.

As usual, the winger brought a great all-around game, earning a +3 rating and logging a significant 3:13 of shorthanded time.

This virtuoso performance extended Wheeler’s point streak to nine games (two goals, 15 assists). Wheeler’s now at 21 points on the season, with 18 of them being assists, which ranks second in the NHL.

Mark Scheifele had a strong game against the struggling Avs, too, scoring a goal and two assists.

2. Mikael Granlund

The Wild absolutely dominated the Ducks, who seem to have no gear other than “hope John Gibson and a few deadly shooters can save the day.”

Granlund and Jason Zucker both generated three points, so you could consider them tied for the second star. Granlund gets the slight edge because he scored two goals and one assist, while Zucker generated two assists and one goal. Again, you could make the argument that Zucker should get that nod instead (or be the third star, if you’re really being difficult), as he had five SOG to Granlund’s two, and Zucker’s tally was the GWG.

Still, Granlund enjoyed a slightly more impressive night, including really making it easy for Zucker on his goal.

The Wild are quietly heating up, with wins in nine of their last 11 games. Bruce Boudreau just finds ways to keep his team’s regular-season-relevant, doesn’t he? Granlund and Zucker deserve serious credit for stepping up with Eric Staal banged up.

3. Chad Johnson

Friday was a solid night for goalies around the NHL. Sergei Bobrovsky earned praise from Torts and had the same number of saves (33) as Johnson. Like Bob, Frederik Andersen only allowed one goal while making 38 stops.

Chad Johnson is the only goalie who earned a shutout on Friday, though.

Considering Jake Allen‘s substantial struggles, the Blues might want to lean on Johnson for a while, as the journeyman goalie has – on occasion – shown that he can carry a team in net at times during certain stretches. The Blues have been able to occasionally create a really nurturing atmosphere for hot-and-cold goalies (like Brian Elliott, Johnson’s creasemate from last season), so perhaps Johnson could go on a mini-run? If nothing else, this was a nice win, especially if Mike Yeo is in any way looking over his shoulder at Joel Quenneville.

In other Blues news, Ryan O'Reilly is on a nine-game point streak.

Highlights

It didn’t translate to a goal, but this bit of Scheifele wizardry was magical:

Speaking of magical, Nick Foligno‘s beautiful pass to Oliver Bjorkstrand played a trick on three Capitals opponents:

Andreas Athanasiou ranks as one of Friday’s honorable mentions, scoring the goal that sent Detroit’s game against the Rangers into OT, then setting up Dylan Larkin for this OT game-winner:

Lowlight

Here’s hoping referee Brad Meier is feeling OK after this uncomfortable fall:

Factoids

Wheeler’s 400th assist wasn’t the only milestone from Friday. Patrick Marleau didn’t do a whole lot for it (Nazem Kadri ended up batting down a puck for a nice goal), but most of his 600 career assists have surely been impressive. (These two assist milestones explain the big apples part of this post’s headline, in case that wasn’t clear.)

Kinda cool to see his old buddy Joe Thornton on this list with him:

Chad Johnson’s enjoyed some nice peak moments in the NHL, but it’s been a while since he’s enjoyed a night like Friday.

Rarely a bad time to see your name next to Wayne Gretzky’s, eh, Blake Wheeler?

Scores

TOR 6 – NJD 1
CBJ 2 – WSH 1
DET 3 – NYR 2 (OT)
STL 4 – SJS 0
WPG 5 – COL 2
MIN 5 – ANA 1

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

How worried should Avs be about five-game skid?

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The biggest story of the Winnipeg Jets’ 5-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche was the dominant play of Blake Wheeler, who generated a career-high five points. (Stay tuned for more on Wheeler in tonight’s Buzzer.)

Five was a sobering number for the Avalanche beyond Wheeler’s tremendous game, though. With this loss, the Avalanche have now dropped five straight defeats, slipping to 7-6-3.

Once again, it seems like the Avalanche are mirroring their Eastern Conference cousins (and long-ago Stanley Cup Final opponents) in the New Jersey Devils.

Both teams rode MVP-quality performances from Taylor Hall and Nathan MacKinnon, managing to shock the hockey world with appearances in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Each squad were expected to come back down to reality in 2018-19, yet stormed off to strong starts. And now it seems like gravity is pulling each team down.

[Read up about New Jersey’s tough stretch here.]

Perhaps taking a deeper look at the Avalanche’s season will give us sense of how worried they should be.

The top line and everyone else

While the deadly trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog failed to generate a point in Friday’s loss to the Jets, this bumpy stretch isn’t on them. Granted, Wheeler did accomplish the rare task of making MacKinnon look silly in collecting his 400th assist:

Regardless, it’s telling that there are only two other skaters who are in the double digits in points (Tyson Barrie with 12, Alexander Kerfoot with 11), and Barrie is a defenseman who is frequently on the ice with that big three.

Breaking up that top line might be too much to ask of Jared Bednar, but one way or another, the Avalanche could really use more secondary scoring.

Goalies becoming human

The Avalanche’s hot start didn’t just come down to that outrageous first line.

Semyon Varlamov began his contract year on a tear, only allowing 13 goals during eight October appearances, sporting an elite .950 save percentage. While Varlamov made some tough stops before ultimately succumbing to the Jets’ deadly attack on Friday, allowing four goals against Winnipeg means that he’s given up 13 goals in three November contests, the same total he yielded during that unsustainable start.

Speaking of unsustainable, quite a few numbers seemed to indicate that the Avalanche were due for regression. Heading into this loss, Natural Stat Trick listed Colorado’s 9.6 shooting percentage at even-strength as the sixth-highest in the NHL, while their PDO (a stat that’s helpful shorthand for luck) ranking fifth at 1.021.

Calming context

To be fair to the Avalanche, they haven’t been getting routed in the same way that the Devils have.

Even Friday’s 5-2 loss was close at times, as Colorado decreased Winnipeg’s leads to 2-1 and 3-2 in the third period before the Jets pulled away.

Four of this young team’s five consecutive losses have come on the road, and the Avalanche have played eight of their last 11 games away from home. Their opponents haven’t been cupcakes, either. While the Flames and Wild have talent but have been hit-or-miss, Colorado fell to a surprisingly feisty Canucks squad, lost to the red-hot Predators, and then those imposing Jets.

A harsher critic would wave away all of those details as mere excuses, and it’s not such a tough schedule that the Avs deserve a free pass. Nonetheless, it provides some context and solidifies the notion that Colorado shouldn’t get too bent out of shape about this stretch.

***

Long story short, the Avalanche weren’t as strong as their 6-1-2 start indicated, nor are they as rudderless as a five-game losing streak might imply.

The truth is somewhere in the middle, and that should be fine for a very young, fast team that played way beyond expectations last season (not to mention a franchise that owns the Ottawa Senators’ potentially lucrative 2019 first-round pick).

Now, will the Avalanche be competitive enough to earn a playoff spot despite playing in the loaded Central Division and the unfriendly West? Check back after a few more cold and hot streaks.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

WATCH LIVE: Predators visit Avalanche on Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Wednesday night’s matchup between the Nashville Predators and Colorado Avalanche at 10 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

This week’s Wednesday Night Hockey doubleheader wraps up with a rematch from the first-round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs when the Nashville Predators visit the Colorado Avalanche.

It is sure to be an exciting matchup between two top Central Division teams as the Predators roll into the game owning the league’s best points percentage (22 points in 14 game) and best goal differential (plus-17). After reaching the Stanley Cup Final two years ago and then coming back a year ago to win the Presidents’ Trophy the Predators are once again on track to be one of the best teams in the NHL and a top-tier Stanley Cup contender.

The Avalanche, meanwhile, are doing their best to show that their surprise playoff appearance (after completing an incredible one-year turnaround in the standings) was no fluke. They enter play on Wednesday in one of the two Wild Card spots in the Western Conference and just one point back of Minnesota for the second spot in the Central Division.

They boast the NHL’s third-best goal differential (plus-12) and one of the NHL’s top lines with the trio of Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, and Gabriel Landeskog leading the way. Rantanen entered Wednesday as the league’s leading scorer with 24 points, two points ahead of Edmonton Oilers forward Connor McDavid. MacKinnon is third in the scoring race with 21 points while Landeskog is 12th with 18 total points. His 11 goals are tied for the second most.

Puck drop in Colorado is 10 p.m. ET.

[WATCH LIVE – 10 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Nashville Predators at Colorado Avalanche
Where: Pepsi Center
When: Wednesday, November 7th, 10 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Predators-Avalanche stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

PREDATORS

Filip ForsbergRyan JohansenRyan Hartman
Calle JarnkrokKyle TurrisCraig Smith
Frederick GaudreauNick BoninoKevin Fiala
Zac RinaldoColton SissonsMiikka Salomaki

Roman JosiRyan Ellis
Mattias EkholmP.K. Subban
Anthony BitettoYannick Weber

Starting Goalie: Pekka Rinne

AVALANCHE
Gabriel Landeskog – Nathan MacKinnon – Mikko Rantanen
Sheldon Dries – Alexander KerfootColin Wilson
Matt NietoCarl SoderbergMatt Calvert
Gabriel BourqueVladislav KamenevMarko Dano

Patrik NemethErik Johnson
Ian ColeSamuel Girard
Nikita ZadorovTyson Barrie

Starting goalie: Semyon Varlamov

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Wednesday Night Hockey: Preds, Avs meet in playoff rematch

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Wednesday night’s matchup between the Nashville Predators and Colorado Avalanche at 10:00 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Preds and Avs will meet for the first time since they went head-to-head in the opening round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring. Of course, Nashville won that series in six games, but Colorado didn’t go away quietly.

Peter Laviolette’s team comes into this game riding a three-game winning streak, as they’ve racked up victories over the Golden Knights, the Lightning and Bruins. Those are three pretty good teams. What’s even more impressive, is that the Preds only allowed two goals over the course of the winning streak. After missing five games with an undisclosed injury, Pekka Rinne won back-to-back games, including a 26-save shutout against the Boston Bruins.

Coming into the season, many wondered whether or not Rinne would be back next season because he was entering the final year of his contract. The Preds put that story to bed by signing their veteran Finnish goaltender to a two-year, $10 million extension.

“Both the organization and Pekka want him to play his entire career with the Predators, and this helps accomplish that objective, while also stabilizing our goaltending for at least the next two seasons beyond 2018-19,” said GM David Poile. “We feel the tandem of Pekka and Juuse Saros is among the best in the league.”

That tandem has been impressive. Rinne has a 5-1-0 record with a 1.63 goals-against-average and a .948 save percentage this season, while Saros owns a 6-2-0 record with a 2.50 goals-against-average and a .917 save percentage. Not too shabby. The defense might be the backbone of this team, but the two goaltenders aren’t far behind.

“My goal was to stay here, and I felt like the team wanted me to stay here. I think in that sense, sooner the better,” Rinne said. “I’m very happy about the whole situation.”

Their defense and goaltending will be challenged tonight, as they’ll face an Avs team that’s second in the league in goals per game (3.71).

The Avalanche have also received some steady goaltending from Semyon Varlamov, but this Avs team is being carried by their first line of Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen.

That trio combined for 243 points in 2017-18, and they’ve already combined for 63 points through 14 games. MacKinnon and Landeskog are both tied at 11 goals, but Rantanen leads the team in points with 24. Nobody in the NHL has picked up more points than Rantanen. Even though he’s played one less game than Connor McDavid, he’s still picked up two more points.

“You start getting in that 80-point-plus range and it puts you among the elite in the league, in my opinion,” Avs coach Jared Bednar told the Denver Post last month. “And then you look at the start he has this year and some of the things that stand out with his sturdiness on pucks and the way he’s using his size and strength. I think he’s just figuring out how he can be more productive and more dangerous by using his size because he’s a big strong guy.”

Rantanen has only been held off the scoresheet in two of 14 games this year.

Reminder: the early game on NBCSN features the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. 

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.