scottbilleck

Getty Images

It’s time to stop labeling Blake Wheeler as underrated

14 Comments

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

Report: Joel Quenneville not planning on packing it in

Getty Images
11 Comments

Surprise, surprise: one of the most successful coaches in NHL history wants to coach again.

Joel Quenneville isn’t ready to pack it in, according to a report from The Athletic on Friday.

The report suggests that Quenneville is biding his time, waiting for the right opportunity to return. Quenneville, a three-time Stanley Cup winner and a veteran of 1,636 games as a bench boss, said he was both “disappointed” yet “not surprised” he was the second coach to receive his pink slip this season.

Quenneville, already the second-winningest coach in NHL history, sits 110 wins shy of 1,000, which would make him just the second coach in history — behind Scotty Bowman — to reach a quadruple-digit total in that column.

So, one has to think some very nice opportunities will start lining up for Quenneville. And one has to wonder, now that Quenneville has broken his silence, if that might accelerate decisions regarding some of the coaches sitting on the proverbial hot seat going forward.

Does the seemingly inevitable return of Steve Yzerman to the Detroit Red Wings push Jeff Blashill out of a job in Detroit?

If Yzerman is set to take over in Hockey Town, Quenneville would be a huge coup as the Red Wings try to rebuild themselves into their former glory.

Would Quenneville fancy a chance to remain in the Central Division with the St. Louis Blues?

Mike Yeo’s job appeared to be one loss away from going up in smoke a couple weeks back, but the Blues have managed to turn things around a little bit since then.

Colorado has now lost five straight. Perhaps Joe Sakic is kicking those tires, too.

What about Randy Carlyle in Anaheim?

Gifted with as stud goaltender, the Ducks have fluttered everywhere but in the crease this season and have just two wins in their past 10 games.

I’d mention Ottawa, but I’m not sure anyone wants to be in that situation at the moment. There is some great young talent amongst the Senators roster, but the off-ice stuff is a little too intense.

Perhaps he waits for Seattle?

Quenneville has time on his side. He’s getting paid $6 million this season and next, so he’s not going to be hurting financially.

On Friday, TSN’s Pierre LeBrun shed some light on how Quenneville’s current compensation might be affected if he was to take a new coaching gig.

We know that he makes $6 million a year this year and next and there is an offset provision in the NHL rules where when a coach gets hired by another team, they have to figure out the difference with his former team. This is pretty important when it comes to this situation. The Chicago Blackhawks aren’t going to pay the majority of his salary for him to go find a job somewhere else. It has to be the right fit. But also, it has to be a team that can afford to pay a big part of that salary that remains on that contract.

Interested teams then have a decision to make, but for one looking a rare opportunity to land a coach of Quenneville’s ilk, it’s just the cost of doing business.


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

Scheifele, Morrissey explain what Oates will bring to LA Kings

Getty Images
4 Comments

WINNIPEG — Mark Scheifele texts back and forth with Adam Oates nearly every day.

The two review clips Oates has cut for the Winnipeg Jets forward, and Oates offers some ideas of small adjustments Scheifele can make in practice to help better translate to game nights.

As one of several clients of Oates Sports Group, a boutique hockey agency that offers a wide range of amenities for players — from skill development right up to player representation — it’s Scheifele’s tight-knit relationship with Oates as they work on the finer points of his game that’s turned the 25-year-old into one of the NHL’s elite centers.

“I think that’s one of the biggest things, that he gives you active, constructive things to work on a daily basis than just going out and skating,” Scheifele said. “Skate with a purpose, work on the things that are going to benefit your game, in-game.”

Scheifele linked up with Oates three years ago in an effort to further his on-ice product. What drew him — and likely a list of 20 or so other NHLers to the Hockey Hall of Famer — was Oates’ history in the league, an illustrious career and one of the best to ever do it.

“That’s first and foremost,” Scheifele said. “He’s one of the best passers of all time. He’s felt it. He knows what it is like to be in certain situations. He can still actually, physically do it, one thing I think he still does really well. And he’s really smart, a hard-working hockey mind that understands the game so well. He can watch it and read it at a different pace than everyone else.”

[RELATED: Oates joins Kings as skills and development consulatant

Oates was a prolific forward who terrorized defenseman. The slick-skating, pinpoint passer amassed 1,079 assists and 1,420 points in 1,337 games during his 19-year tenure. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2012.

Oates’ ability to slice his way through defenders drew Josh Morrissey in, too.

Winnipeg’s top shutdown rearguard has made a name for himself when it comes keeping the NHL’s best off the scoresheet on a nightly basis — something that rarely happened to Oates.

“He’s one of the best forwards of all time, he knows how to beat you,” Morrissey said. “He knows what forwards are trying to do to you and knows how to try and avoid that kind of thing.”

Being the burgeoning defenseman that he is, Morrissey wanted in on the tutelage. The 23-year-old claims Oates’ advice is largely rudimentary.

“Defensively, just a few little skating things, avoiding injury by having your head up more, controlling the puck more by changing your stick a little bit,” Morrissey said. “Things to make your game more efficient.”

Supplementary to one’s overall game?

“Exactly,” he said. “It’s like a strength coach or a nutritionist that you have back home during the summer.”

Morrissey said there was a controversy a few years ago surrounding whether teams liked their players working with Oates or not.

“The thing I can attest to, personally, from having worked with him, is that it has nothing to do with anything systematically, it’s just little skills and things like that,” Morrissey said.

Oates isn’t trying to re-invent the wheel, per se. He’s just trying to perfect it.

So why are two of Winnipeg’s stars talking about Oates?

Mostly because I asked them to after the Los Angeles Kings hired Oates as a consultant for skills development and to help the team’s ailing power play earlier this week, just two days after they fired head coach John Stevens and assistant Don Nachbaur, replacing them with Willie Desjardins and Marco Sturm.

But also to get some insight as to why a team as a whole might want his services.

Both are happy to see an important asset to their careers find work with the Kings.

“I personally think it was a great play by L.A.,” Scheifele said of bringing Oates aboard. “Smart play there by them. He’s got a lot of knowledge.”

Judging by some of the names under Oates’ wing — Steven Stamkos, Jack Eichel and Max Pacioretty, to name a few — it seems like a bona fide no-brainer.

Morrissey said it’s a running joke among those who train with Oates that they wish they could just keep him to themselves.

“Because he’s so smart,” Morrissey said. “But I’m happy for him getting that role.”

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: Horvat erupts; Luongo spectacular

Getty Images
4 Comments

Three Stars

1. Bo Horvat, Vancouver Canucks

Horvat was one of 11 Canucks to record a point on Thursday, and he topped the heap with two goals and two assists as the Canucks doubled up the Boston Bruins 8-4. The game featured no goaltending. Horvat took three minor penalties in the game, too, so he could have likely done even more damage against unenthused Boston club.

2. Roberto Luongo, Florida Panthers

He stopped 26-of-27 saves. It’s not a 50-save performance by any means, but when you watch the highlights, Luongo will be sprinkled all over them. ‘Lu’ made two incredible glove-hand saves in the game, one of which you will see below. Luongo has now won both starts since returning from an injury sustained in the first game of the regular season. Florida struggled mightily with Luongo out of the lineup but have now beaten the Winnipeg Jets and the Oilers since his return as he tries to turn around Florida’s terrible start.

3. Jeff Skinner, Buffalo Sabres

He might have been the acquisition of the summer. Skinner scored two more goals on Thursday as the Sabres edged the Montreal Canadiens 6-5 in overtime. Skinner has 11 goals on the season, including six in his past six games. His career high is 37 and he’s on pace to flirt with 40 this season.

Other notable performances

  • Jake DeBrusk did his best to help the Bruins win with two goals and an assist. He didn’t get much help from his goaltenders in a walloping to the Canucks though.
  • Skinner wasn’t the only one scoring in multiples on Thursday. Vladimir Sobotka notched two of his own in the Sabres win.
  • Like DeBrusk above, New York Islanders forward Josh Bailey was a victim of lackluster goaltending after putting up a brace of his own.
  • Mikko Koivu assisted on all three Wild goals in a 3-1 win against the Kings.

Highlights of the Night

Not so fast, Rattie:

This kind of thing should be banned:

A powerful message from Los Angeles and Minnesota:

Factoids

Scores

Canucks 8, Bruins 5

Panthers 4, Oilers 1

Flyers 5, Coyotes 4 (OT)

Golden Knights 5, Senators 3

Lightning 4, Islanders 2

Sabres 6, Canadiens 5 (OT)

Hurricanes 4, Blackhawks 3

Starts 4, Sharks 3

Wild 3, Kings 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

Kings, Wild hold moment of silence after recent shooting

Los Angeles Kings Twitter
5 Comments

“Enough.”

That was the united message from the Los Angeles Kings and the Minnesota Wild before puck drop on Thursday.

Players and coaches all held signs that simply read, ‘Enough,’ as a moment of silence was held for the 12 victims who were tragically killed in a mass shooting on Wednesday at a country music bar in Thousand Oaks, California, a 40-minute drive from downtown Los Angeles.

“We want to help amplify the message that enough is enough,” Kings President Luc Robitaille said before Thursday’s game. “We cannot accept these incidents as a new reality.”

Robitaille was on the Kings’ broadcast before the game and said that Wednesday’s events can’t be lost on peoples’ minds the next day.

“It’s not enough for every sports organization to just do a moment of silence. We need to do more,” he said.

Classy stuff by both the Kings and the Wild.


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