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Hart of a Lion: Wheeler's career year has him in running for league MVP

by Ryan Dittrick @ryandittrick / WinnipegJets.com

When the news broke the Winnipeg Jets would be without their No. 1 centre for up to two months earlier this season, both captain and coach, admittedly, feared the worst.

"Terrified isn't the right word," a more relaxed Blake Wheeler said after his 'running mate,' Mark Scheifele returned, "but I was concerned about how it would work."

Paul Maurice, Wheeler's 22 teammates and the many thousands of Jets fans glued to their phones awaiting the prognosis the following day had a similar mindset.

The team had just come off an electric home-ice win over the Edmonton Oilers, were 10 games above .500 and were poised for a big second half.

Without Scheifele, though - the preeminent player in their stable of star talent - that task seemed all but impossible now, they thought.

Instead, they rattled off an 11-2-3 record and remained atop the Central Division standings during that time, thanks in large part to the play of their All-Star captain, who moved to the middle and served admirably in Scheifele's absence.

Video: MTL@WPG: Wheeler takes it himself for dazzling PPG

"He's a Hart Trophy candidate for me this year," Maurice, who doesn't normally speak of those accolades, opined following a late-January practice. "He's been that good. To come out of position to a place you haven't played (much before) … Almost all of our numbers actually got better, and especially on the defensive side of the puck. I don't know if that's 100 per cent true on absolute goals for and against, but certainly in all the measures we have in what we give up in a game, we've played some of our best hockey of the year."

Offensively, Wheeler had five goals and 10 helpers to maintain a point-per-game pace over the 16 without Scheifele. At the other end, and with a host of new responsibilities and rookies on each of his wings, the Jets - as a group - tightened things up with their banged-up squad and saw little change in what was given up defensively, in both volume and quality.  

According to the experts at NaturalStatTrick.com - a cutting-edge and free-to-the-public hockey analytics resource - only six times in the 16 games without Scheifele did Wheeler's high-danger scoring chance percentage rank below 50 per cent. Simply, this means in that nine of those 16 contests, Wheeler and his linemates were producing a higher volume of quality chances (shots below the hash marks and within a 10 to 15-foot radius around the goal crease) than they were giving up.

In those 16 games, Wheeler finished with a high-danger scoring chance for (HDCF%) percentage of 54.5.

"Right around the time Mark went down he was around third or fourth in scoring. It's important to these guys. They want to produce. He's dropped to 12th, but he never came out and he never cheated once," Maurice said. "He took on the captain's role on a team that had a bunch of injuries, got out to the kids, drove them; helped them.

"We survived this because of him and his leadership."

Video: NYI@WPG: Wheeler nets Connor's pass on rush

Wheeler, who praised pivots Bryan Little, Adam Lowry and Matt Hendricks for mentoring him on the fly, doesn't take credit. It's not in his nature and never will be, despite that fiery intensity with which he plays.

Any success or lack thereof in this game, he says, can never be attributed to any one player.

"I know that's the glaring change. I go to the middle and we go on this incredible run," Wheeler said. "I give all the credit to (Little, Lowry and Hendricks) for helping me, talking to me on the bench all the time, taking some of those heavy matchups so we did get on a bit of a roll, we were able to take on a bit more and work our way into that role. It wasn't one guy. From (Connor Hellebuyck) on out, every guy had a piece of that."

Little, especially, has known Wheeler both on and off the ice longer than anyone else in the organization, having joined forces way back in 2011 when Wheeler was traded to Atlanta. For a good chunk of their time here in Winnipeg, the two friends have been linemates, too, forming a bond that few others have been lucky enough to have in a league where permanence is rare.

"I don't think he gets enough recognition for what he does, but people are finally starting to realize what a great player he is," Little said, adding of whether or not he's a legitimate Hart candidate: "No question."

"The last few years he's always been near the top in scoring, but this year, he's shown he can not only do that, but step in and play centre and truly be an elite player in that position when we needed him to be. He's the complete package. He's one of the best playmakers in the game, he can score, he's fast and physical… and that's just the hockey part. You start getting into his leadership and how he drives this team in so many different ways, there's no one else like him in this league."

Bingo.

The uniqueness Wheeler brings to the game is unparalleled; and somehow, some way, he's doing it all - playing the best he ever has - at a time when a lot of players begin to see signs of regression.

Not this guy.

Not with the way he prepares himself to be the absolute best he can be, day in and day out.

"Blake plays until he's 40 and plays at a really high level. I really believe that," Maurice says. "He's such a powerful skater and such a fit man. I don't find him 'later in his career;' to me, he's right in his prime and at his very best."

And it's easy to see why. This is a player so committed, so relentless in his approach to the team concept, that anything but the ultimate goal - winning - is irrelevant.

"He never, ever talks about his points," explained the coach. "He carries the pressure of his individual performance, but he only cares about winning. He's gotten to the point where his game looks just about the same every single night. He doesn't spend a lot of time trying to find his game since I've been here. He's been about as consistent a guy as I've coached in my life, and in the past two years he would be THE most consistent player I've ever coached. He knows how hard he's going to work, he knows how hard he's going to play, and sometimes the puck goes and sometimes it doesn't, but his game doesn't waver."

Video: PIT@WPG: Wheeler records hat trick in 1st period

That goes for his role in the dressing room, too, which according to Little, has had a profound impact on players both young and old this year.

Never, he says, has he seen such a response to the incomparable leadership of this proud team captain.

"He's not going to come in every game, every period and yell and scream and try to get the guys going, but he does it at the right times," Little said. "He gets even more respect because when he does speak up and try to get the guys fired up, everyone's listening and everyone responds to it.

"Everyone."

At the time of Scheifele's injury, Wheeler didn't have a number in mind when asked how many wins he thought the team would need stay afloat through January, but knew it was going to take everyone's best to accomplish that and even be in the fight come March.

What he did know was that the Jets were one of the league's top teams, and the very prospect of that being taken away was a frightening thought.

"You don't want to come in on a first-place team and have that go south," he said.

"We were just hoping to keep steady and keep ourselves in the fight so when (Scheifele) came back, we'd have the opportunity to meet some of our goals."

When Scheifele returned, Wheeler moved back to his usual post on the right wing, while rookie marksman Kyle Connor assumed the left-side spot after a one-game trial with Patrik Laine in that role. The trio enjoyed immediate success, combining for 18 points in their first five games together.

"When Scheif got hurt and they moved me to centre, what we do is we look at not what's going to make me happy, or Scheif happy, or make us come to the rink and be excited. However I'm best utilized to help the team win, [I'm going to do that]," Wheeler said.

"He's dynamic with that speed," Maurice added. "You don't get to play off Blake Wheeler. There are passers out there who you can almost leave to the outside. But if you're not on (Wheeler), he's taking it to the net because of that speed, that size, that strength. He draws people. They have to cover him off and it just makes for some more open ice out there.

"He does a marvelous job of finding that hole. His passing quality gets higher the faster he goes. He makes that play at high-end speed and is dangerous, that way, like no one else I've ever coached."

Career highs offensively.

Scores of praise from friends, foes, longtime coaches and peers around the league.

Doing it all with the 'C' stitched proudly to his chest, leading a team ready to make noise like never before.

That's Wheeler.

An MVP in every sense.

- Ryan Dittrick, WinnipegJets.com

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