Blake Wheeler

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PHT Morning Skate: Captain Couture; Blues ready to defend Cup

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

Logan Couture is the new captain of the San Jose Sharks. [NBC Bay Area]

• Time for the St. Louis Blues to “charge back up the hill” and defend the Stanley Cup. [Post-Dispatch]

Blake Wheeler on how the Winnipeg Jets’ pursuit of the Stanley Cup affected him: “I was disappointed for the first time in myself after last year not because we didn’t win the Stanley Cup. I lost touch with myself as a dad, as a husband, first and foremost, because I invested so much into trying to win. Everyone was talking about this is our year to win and I felt like we had a real opportunity to win and when I was home, that’s where I was – I was trying to win the Stanley Cup.” [TSN]

• Why the Mitch Marner contract drama isn’t as complicated as it seems. [Pension Plan Puppets]

• Edmonton Oilers GM Ken Holland is in no rush to trade Jesse Puljujarvi until he gets the right offer. [Edmonton Journal]

Loui Eriksson says his comments that he and Vancouver Canucks head coach Travis Green don’t get along were “overblown.” [Vancouver Sun]

• Bruce Boudreau and his players are confident the Minnesota Wild can pull off a turnaround this season. [Star Tribune]

• How Kevin Shattenkirk and Patrick Maroon can play positive roles on the Tampa Bay Lightning power play. [Raw Charge]

• Great read on Detroit Red Wings prospect Jalen Smereck and his complicated relationship with hockey and home. [The Score]

• Brady Keeper became the first member of the Pimicikamak Cree Nation to sign an NHL contract last season with the Florida Panthers. He’s confident heading into his first training camp. [NHL.com]

• No matter what happens this season is a win-win for the New York Rangers. [Gotham Sports Network]

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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.

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.

Is Jacob Trouba’s time in Winnipeg coming to an end?

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The Jacob Trouba saga may have taken another turn this weekend, and not one in the Winnipeg Jets’ direction.

For the short-term, Trouba will remain with the Jets, with player-elected arbitration ending in a one-year, $5.5 million contract awarded to the skilled defenseman. Should the Jets choose to accept these terms during their 48-hour window to do so — and they will — their top pairing with Trouba and Josh Morrissey (assuming the latter is also re-signed) remains intact for the coming season.

That’s the good news for the Jets.

The bad, however, is that after this coming season Trouba turns into a question mark.

It would seem that the 24-year-old is angling toward his exit from Winnipeg. He’s now two years away from unrestricted free agency and likely has this season left in Winnipeg before the Jets need to consider trading him to get the best return. Trading him now is an option, but not the best one if they’re serious about another Stanley Cup run in 2018-19.

Understandably, this perceived outcome has angered the local mob — many of whom have been uneasy about Trouba’s future ever since he publicly requested a trade two years ago.

Many believe his contract demands are elephantine. Trouba’s arbitration ruling is the half-way point between what the Jets offered ($4 million) and what Trouba wanted ($7 million). He’s publicly stated that he wants to stay in Winnipeg long-term, fronting that notion after the Jets were bounced from the playoffs and after his exit meeting with the team.

Since then, no long-term commitment from either side has been struck, leaving the player, his agent and Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff at a standstill.

Whatever the reason for the lack of a long-term deal up to this point is up for debate. What isn’t being disputed is the unsettlement it has created among Winnipeg’s disgruntled fanbase. These things happen when you begrudgingly watch your beloved team leave for 15 years. Hockey is woven into the fabric of the city, a symbiotic relationship that, when threatened, lashes back in a subconscious reflex.

Some fans have already resigned themselves to losing Trouba. Some have already been in that boat for a couple years now. There’s an underlying fear among fans that spawns their anger. Trouba departing threatens what the team has grown into — a Stanley Cup contender. And he could derail their present, realistic goal — becoming a Stanley Cup champion.

These are ramifications that every Jets fan is acutely aware of.

Fear is powerful.

For his part, Cheveldayoff has done well to stick to his guns — both now, and back in 2016 when Trouba publicly protested for his exit through a written release from his agent, Kurt Overhardt.

Trouba didn’t get his wish then, and it appears Cheveldayoff isn’t caving to his contract demands now either. Winnipeg can’t be viewed as an organization that gets overrun by players and so far that hasn’t been the case. Keeping up those appearances might just mean Trouba gets traded after all, but only at the last possible, opportune moment for the team, not the player.

While fans might not agree, it’s tough to blame Trouba here. Players have every right to invoke their rights, whether it be arbitration, unrestricted free agency, or asking for an enormous sum of money when it comes to a contract. Careers are short in hockey and there’s money to be made and a future to secure.

At this point though, what Trouba wants and what he’s worth simply doesn’t line up.

Matt Dumba and the Minnesota Wild sorted out a five-year, $30 million deal over the weekend. Dumba had a career year, scoring 14 goals and putting up 50 points. Trouba’s best season was eight goals and 33 points in 2016-17. He plays fewer minutes a night and doesn’t anchor the power play like Dumba. Trouba might be a better defender, but the NHL is a scoring league and production equals dollars.

So short of a career-year — one that would require Trouba to stay healthy (a struggle thus far in his five years in the NHL), in all likelihood — and barring a long-term deal after he’s eligible for one on Jan. 1 — Cheveldayoff is going to have a different decision to make next summer, providing he doesn’t intend on letting Trouba walk for free.

* * *

Replacing Trouba isn’t an easy task.

With Trouba, Winnipeg’s right defenseman depth includes himself, Dustin Byfuglien and Tyler Myers. Without him, and with Myers set to become a UFA at the end of next season, that depth is exposed pretty quickly. A good thread on how Winnipeg’s diversity on the right side has been one of their strengths:

Another year for Tucker Poolman and an uptick in playing time should reveal what the Jets have in him. Poolman has potential and showed it at times last year, but he’s still raw after coming straight out of college a year ago and was coming off bilateral shoulder surgery during the last offseason. Poolman is a restricted free agent at the moment and the Jets have yet to re-sign him.

Winnipeg has Sami Niku, who began his pro career in the AHL last year and won the league’s best defenseman award as a rookie. But Niku is to defense what Toby Enstrom was to offense. Niku is your prototypical offensive defenseman. That’s certainly a good thing, no question. But Niku isn’t a proven commodity in the NHL yet, and losing Trouba leaves a gaping hole when it comes to shutting down the best players on opposing teams.

The Jets targeted two defenseman in the middle rounds of the 2018 NHL Draft, and they’re still a few years away from making any real impact, if they make one at all.

A hefty return for Winnipeg should be involved in any trade for Trouba. In all likelihood, a willing participant in any deal would have to give up a comparable rostered defenseman or a very highly-touted prospect rearguard. A replacement is a must. They don’t need another top-six forward. They need a man that will fill Trouba’s shoes.

There will be several potential suitors for Trouba’s services, but pinning down who and what is involved is anyone’s guess.

The New York Islanders have Ryan Pulock, who played 68 games in his first full NHL season last year and put up 10 goals and 32 points. He’s 23 and from Dauphin, Manitoba — four hours or so west of Winnipeg.

The Detroit Red Wings could be another possible landing spot. Trouba is a Michigan native and the Red Wings top prospect defenseman Filip Hronek that could interest Winnipeg, although a deal like this might not give the Jets an immediate nor proven replacement.

This is all purely speculation. The above two examples offer two sides of what Cheveldayoff could target (similar roster player or well-regarded prospect in a package deal). There are several teams rebuilding at the moment, such as the New York Rangers, and others looking to take their team to the next level, such as the Boston Bruins. If the Tampa Bay Lightning can’t nail down Erik Karlsson, do they look at Trouba? You’d have to think they’d want Mikhail Sergachev in return.

It’s a tricky deal to navigate because the Jets need to fill the outgoing void. Few teams are giving up their best young defenseman for another team’s best young defenseman. These trades rarely happen.

And all of this can change with the wind. A year from now, the landscape in the NHL could be dramatically different, offering new possibilities, in the trade environment, and within the Jets organization.

Cheveldayoff will be in it pretty thick next summer. Blake Wheeler is scheduled to become a UFA and deserves a raise. Patrik Laine is likely to hit double-digits in annual average value. Kyle Connor led all rookies in goal scoring this season. There could be close to $30 million tied up in those three players alone if Connor gets signed long-term, although a bridge deal seems likely given the cap situation.

And to top it all off, Cheveldayoff might be fielding offers for one of his best defensemen.

Let the games begin.

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

Losing Stastny hurts, but doesn’t break Jets

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WINNIPEG — Losing out on re-signing veteran center Paul Stastny is a tough pill to swallow for the Winnipeg Jets. But they aren’t choking on it.

Sure, it will sting for a little while.

Stastny came in and found a nice home nestled in between sniper Patrik Laine and speedster Nikolaj Ehlers. The trio gelled immediately following the trade deadline after the Jets shipped a first rounder and a prospect to the St. Louis Blues for Stastny’s services in their eventual run to the Western Conference Final.

The Jets loved Stastny’s attitude, his leadership and his play from the outset.

And there’s no doubt Stastny made the team better — the Jets were 14-4-1 with him in the lineup. He was also great in Winnipeg’s second-round series against the Nashville Predators, culminating in a three-point game in the Jets 5-1 Game 7 victory,

They liked him so much they performed some roster surgery to try and make him fit, sending Steve Mason’s large contract to the Montreal Canadiens along with forward Joel Armia, who was due for a raise.

They offered him term. Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said he tendered the same three-year contract length the Golden Knights gave Stastny.

And they presented him a team that seemingly has a wide-open window to win a Stanley Cup.

But what the Jets couldn’t match was the $6.5 million valuation Geroge McPhee levied on Stastny.

The Jets were simply priced out and Stastny chose to join a similar situation in terms of contending status for slightly more money than the Jets were able to offer.

Cheveldayoff said the Jets went to the very edge and then crossed it to try and bring Stastny back. The almighty dollar, in its almightiness, ruled the day.

“Hockey is a great game but can be an awful business sometimes,” general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said on Sunday. “We put our best foot forward and maybe even six inches beyond even our best foot to make sure that we would have no regrets if it wasn’t good enough. Because at the end of the day, it was just a reality of what we could or couldn’t do given the good problems that we have in front of us in keeping this solid team together.”

Simply, they fell victim to their own success in developing top-tier talent. It’s not a bad thing, but you can’t always get what you want, a man named Mick Jagger once said.

“We’re at a point in time here where, and I keep going back and talking about when we played in the 2015 playoffs and Mark Scheifele got one assist or something like that in the playoffs, and you see how much of a driver he is right now,” Cheveldayoff said. “You see what the players that were young back then at 21 and are now 25, and you’ve got a good group of 20-, 21-, 22-year-old players that just went through a very rigorous experience in three rounds of the playoffs and they’re going to be better for it.”

The biggest thing for Jets fans to remember is that the team was already good sans Stastny.

When the trade deadline day opened on Feb. 26, the Jets had 37 wins and were sitting in third place overall in the Western Conference. With Stastny — and a little late-season fluttering by the Golden Knights — the Jets moved into second place by the end of the season, four points back of the Predators for the Presidents’ Trophy.

Reality bites sometimes, but it’s not biting the Jets in a hurtful manner.

Despite losing a top-tier second-line center, the Jets’ roster is filled with young, hungry talent. And a lot of that young talent has begun to blossom in such a way that it needs more than careful nurturing to grow.

The Jets need to water their crop with money.

The list this offseason — on that includes Vezina runner-up Connor Hellebuyck, top defensive shutdown duo Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba and several other depth guys — is long. And it doesn’t include three other big-ticket items that are on the horizon, including a Laine contract that could touch double digits, rookie goal-scoring leader this past year Kyle Connor and 91-point forward Blake Wheeler, who will be a free agent at the end of the 2018-19 season.

Cheveldayoff has some finagling to do, and Stastny electing to head to Sin City may have been a bit of a blessing in disguise, at least on the ledger.

With July 1 gone with the wind, and Stastny, too, the Jets can now focus their efforts on their hefty RFA contingent and perhaps ramp up the dialogue with Wheeler and Laine.

“When it’s all said and done, you guys are going to look at the salary cap and roster and say, ‘OK, how were they going to do this anyway?” Cheveldayoff said. “Again, we’ve got a good group of guys here and we’ve got lots of work ahead of us on our RFAs. That’s where things pick up on July 2.”

Cheveldayoff said he’s confident his internal stable of talent can fill the void. Perhaps Bryan Little has a bounce-back season. Or maybe Jack Roslovic takes the next step in his development and slides in between the two Scandanavians.

“Obviously when you have good young players it gives opportunities,” Cheveldayoff said. “But at the end of the day, the biggest thing, and I was reminded of the fact even walking over here, Josh Morrissey became Josh Morrissey because of the opportunity that he got and what he earned in training camp. We’re in a real good spot because Josh Morrissey has developed to where he has.

“So, Kristian Vesalainen, Nikolaj Ehlers, you’ve got to have coaches willing to play these guys when they’re young and give them opportunities. Back, several years ago, that’s all we had, that’s all we could do is play those young guys and let them grow and have our lumps with them. Now you’ve got a core of veterans, you’ve got a core of middle-aged kind of veterans, and you’ve got a core of young guys, and they’re all kind of moving in the same direction, and that’s pretty exciting.”

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