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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: Stone puts up a five-spot; O’Reilly cashes in first-career hat trick

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Three Stars

1. Mark Stone, Ottawa Senators

Stone had to face the music on Tuesday morning for an incident he wasn’t even a part of. By the end of the night, Stone had displayed his leadership qualities both on and off the ice after recording a five-point night as the Senators took it to the New Jersey Devils in a 7-3 thumping. The Senators forward has six goals and 12 assists in 15 games now this season.

2. Ryan O'Reilly, St. Louis Blues

Normally, a first-career hat trick would be sufficient enough for the top star, but given what Ottawa has gone through over the past 24 hours, and the way Stone played, O’Reilly’s three-goal game comes in a close second. The hatty helped the Blues get back to winning ways. O’Reilly now has seven goals and 19 points in 16 games in his first season in St. Louis.

3. Marcus Sorensen, San Jose Sharks

Sorensen had one goal and two assists to help the Sharks to a 4-3 win against the Minnesota Wild. The Sharks have won two straight and have points in eight of their past 10 games.

Other notable performances: 

  • Thomas Chabot was in that now infamous Uber ride taken by the Ottawa Senators. He didn’t speak before the game but continued his torrid pace with another goal (his fourth) and two more assists (his 15th and 16th). Chabot is the top scoring defenseman in the NHL right now.
  • Robby Fabbri scored his first goal of the season and first in 23 months. Injuries have played Fabbri during that time.
  • Chad Johnson got the nod for the Blues against the shot-happy Hurricanes. He made 38-of-39 saves.
  • Ilya Kovalchuk has a goal and two assists to help the Kings to a 4-1 win against the Anaheim Ducks in Willie Desjardins first game in as the bench boss in L.A.
  • Freddie Andersen made 36 saves (seven on the power play) in a 3-1 win for the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Vegas Golden Knights.
  • Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov each produced three-point nights as the Lightning trounced the Edmonton Oilers 5-2.
  • Jimmy Howard stopped 40 pucks for the Red Wings in regulation and overtime and stopped all three shooters in he faced in the shootout in a 3-2 Detroit win over Vancouver.

Highlights of the Night

Robby Fabbri’s first goal in 23 months. Welcome back.

Elias Pettersson has it all:

He Pionk’d on ’em:

Nice outlet pass:

Factoids

Scores

Maple Leafs 3, Golden Knights 1

Rangers 5, Canadiens 3

Blue Jackets 4, Stars 1

Senators 7, Devils 3

Red Wings 3, Canucks 2 (SO)

Lightning 5, Oilers 2

Blues 4, Hurricanes 1

Sharks 4, Wild 3

Kings 4, Ducks 1


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

Stamkos, Kucherov provide spark as Lightning strike down Oilers

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For the rest of the league, it must sound like a broken record.

For the Tampa Bay Lightning, it’s just another day at the office.

The Lightning won again on Tuesday night on NBCSN, using their mighty arsenal of weapons to pump five goals into the Edmonton Oilers net in a 5-2 win on home ice, their 11th in 15 tries.

Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, Yanni Gourde and Nikita Kucherov all recorded multi-point games, which has become simply a mere fact of life these days in the National Hockey League.

Kucherov scored twice in the game while adding an assist, Stamkos had a goal and two helpers and Point and Gourde each had a goal and an assist as Tampa won its third straight game.

Some of this stuff isn’t even fair.

The Oilers go where Connor McDavid goes these days and McDavid didn’t factor onto the scoresheet at all for just the second time in 15 games, a result that was evident in the final tally.

McDavid’s goose egg meant the end of his eight-game point streak that saw him amass 11 points. The Oilers came into the game on a recent surge, winning five of their past seven games.

Ryan Strome found his first of the season to cut Tampa’s lead to 2-1 in the second period and Leon Draisaitl brought the Oilers back to within two with his ninth in the third.

Mikko Koskinen was given the start for the Oilers — he had earned it, going 3-0-0 with a .935 save percentage in his previous three nods in the crease this season — but even the 6-foot-7 Finn couldn’t keep Tampa’s potent offense at bay.

At the other end of the ice, Andrei Vasilevskiy was his usual self, stopping 33 of 35 pucks sent his way for his eighth win in 11 starts.

The score likely could have been a lot more lopsided as the Lightning went just 1-for-6 on the power play.

Tensions finally boiled over for the Oilers midway through the third and Milan Lucic took out his frustrations on a fellow human.

Lucic took exception to a hit earlier in the shift by the Lightning.

Lucic was effectively punted from the game after his antics, racking up two minor penalties and a 10-minute misconduct.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule


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

WATCH LIVE: Lightning host Oilers on NBCSN

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Edmonton Oilers at Tampa Bay Lightning at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

The Oilers and Lightning meet for the first time this season, and both come in playing well of late. Despite their 4-2 loss in Washington Monday night, Edmonton’s still won five of their last seven games. The loss to the Capitals snapped a five-game road winning streak.

At 10-3-1, the Lightning are just one point off their 14-game start from last season, when they opened the season 10-2-2 en route to setting franchise records for wins (54) and points (113).

Connor McDavid has recorded at least one point in 13 of the Oilers’ 14 games this season, including his 10th goal of the season Monday night. McDavid is second in the NHL with 22 points (10G-12A). For the Lightning, Nikita Kucherov has 14 points in 14 games and Steven Stamkos has 10 points over the same stretch. The Lightning captain started the season by scoring only once in the first 10 games but has since netted three in his last four.

Tampa currently ranks first in the NHL on the penalty kill (90.4 percent). This efficiency is impressive considering the Lightning have been shorthanded the seventh-most times in the NHL this season (52 entering Tuesday).

[WATCH LIVE – 7:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

What: Edmonton Oilers at Tampa Bay Lightning
Where: Amalie Arena
When: Tuesday, November 6th, 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
Live stream: You can watch the Oilers-Lightning stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

OILERS
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins – Connor McDavid – Ty Rattie
Tobias RiederLeon DraisaitlDrake Caggiula
Milan LucicRyan StromeKailer Yamamoto
Jujhar KhairaKyle BrodziakZack Kassian

Oscar KlefbomAdam Larsson
Darnell NurseKris Russell
Kevin GravelMatthew Benning

Starting goalie: Mikko Koskinen

LIGHTNING
J.T. Miller – Steven Stamkos – Nikita Kucherov
Yanni GourdeBrayden PointTyler Johnson
Alex KillornAnthony CirelliMathieu Joseph
Adam ErneCedric PaquetteRyan Callahan

Ryan McDonaghAnton Stralman
Slater KoekkoekDan Girardi
Braydon CoburnMikhail Sergachev

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line atphtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

NHL on NBCSN: Oilers look to continue upswing vs. Lightning

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NBC’s coverage of the 2018-19 NHL season continues with Tuesday night’s matchup between the Edmonton Oilers at Tampa Bay Lightning at 7:30 p.m. ET. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports App by clicking here.

With Tuesday’s firing of Joel Quenneville, Jon Cooper, hired in 2013, assumes the title of the longest-tenured head coach in the NHL. Aside from the 2016-17 season, all Cooper has done is bring success to the Tampa Bay Lightning franchise.

Those winning ways have continued into this season with the Lightning second in the league in points with 21, thanks to a 10-3-1 start. That record has been aided by a common theme among Cooper’s team: strong secondary scoring.

Look at the current Lightning roster and their stats. Nikita Kucherov (5 goals, 14 points) and Steven Stamkos (4 goals, 10 points) are doing their usual thing. But atop the scoring list for the team entering Tuesday’s game are two players who are making themselves into household names. Brayden Point (8 goals, 17 points) and the newly-extended Yanni Gourde (6 goals, 14 points) are leading the way, playing huge roles in Tampa’s strong start.

[WATCH LIVE – 7:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

The Oilers could use some more of that secondary scoring, and that’s been coming on after skittish start has seen them win five of their last seven. Connor McDavid‘s received some help as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins (16 points) and Leon Draisaitl (8 goals) have been aided by Alex Chiasson (6 goals) and Drake Caggiula (5 goals). Meanwhile, Tobias Rieder has dished out six assists, with four of them coming as primary helpers.

Also, Goaltender Mikko Koskinen has won all three of his starts during this seven game stretch and helped lighten the load for Cam Talbot, who’s been a workhorse the last two seasons with 140 starts since the 2016-17 season.

Chiasson’s the interesting story right now. After being part of the Capitals’ Stanley Cup winning team last season, he found himself unsigned over the summer and joined the Oilers on a tryout in September. His play in the preseason earned him a one-year deal, but he ended up as a healthy scratch for the first five games of the season. Back in the lineup, the 28-year-old forward has been on fire scoring his six goals in his last nine games.

As Quenneville and John Stevens look for new jobs, the hot seat on Todd McLellan, a preseason favorite as first head coach fired, has cool quite a bit during this run.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.