WINNIPEG -- Despite a season that saw him reach a career high in points (78) and finish with points in 11 straight games, Blake Wheeler only feels disappointment.
After making the Stanley Cup playoffs last season, the Winnipeg Jets are on the outside looking in after 82 games.
“There will be a time for sure when I’m able to reflect on it, and I’ll be proud of the work I’ve put in,” said Wheeler. “Certainly coming into the year, being pretty excited about where we left off last year, looking to build on that, it’s disappointing.”
The Jets finished the season with a 35-39-8 record, putting them seventh in the Central Division. Just like 2014-2015, five Central Division teams will play for the Stanley Cup, tied with the Metropolitan Division for the most in the league.
But it wasn’t the team’s 11-16-2 record within the Division that Wheeler believes why MTS Centre won’t see playoff hockey this spring.
“I think five-on-five we were a pretty good hockey team. I think our special teams obviously let us down for a long stretch. You don’t necessarily need a power play to win the Stanley Cup, but it can’t hurt you either,” said Wheeler. “I think there were times when our power play hurt us. There are a lot of games you look at, and a goal here or a goal there, a bounce in the right direction, we were close all year. It doesn’t feel that way the way we ended up.”
Overall, Winnipeg’s power play operated at a 14.8 percent efficiency, while the penalty kill finished 25th in the NHL at 78.4 percent. They’re numbers the team wants to improve, but Wheeler doesn’t believe the Jets are far off.
“Anaheim had the worst power play in the league last year, and now they’re the first power play. That’s one of those things. Boston won the Stanley Cup with the worst power play in the league,” Wheeler said. “For me, you look at more, is your power play generating offense and building momentum for your team, and as long as it’s doing that, it’s doing its job.”
As one of the youngest teams in the NHL this season, rookies like Nikolaj Ehlers and Andrew Copp had to learn the pro game on the fly. While Copp made his NHL debut late in the 2014-2015 season, this was his first full campaign.
Copp registered five points through his first 61 games, then as his role expanded with injuries on the penalty kill units, his numbers jumped to six goals and eight points in the final 21.
Speaking of production, Ehlers finished tied for sixth on the team in points with 38, and finished the season on a dynamic line with Wheeler and Mark Scheifele.
“They’re two great players. For me as a young guy to go in and play with those two, it’s exciting,” said Ehlers. “I’ve learned a lot from them. I think there’s still a lot I can learn from them.”
The learning Ehlers wants to do is primarily in the defensive zone.
“When I start going on the ice again, it’s going to be a lot of work in the defensive zone, positioning and everything. I feel like I took a big step there, but there’s still a lot that I need to work on,” said Ehlers, who said his year had a lot of ups and downs as he learned the pro game. “It was my first year in the best league in the world… (It was) a lot of fun, not the season we wanted, but it was a good learning year for me.”
While Scheifele is no longer a rookie in the NHL, he took on a big role as a 23-year old especially late in the season.
When Bryan Little went down with a fractured vertebra, it was Scheifele that stepped up into Little’s spot on the top line.
“You see each and every year there’s more and more young guys coming in and making big impacts on their team. Obviously experience is a big thing, and I’ve learned that over the course of my career so far,” he said. “I think it’s just a matter of continuing to learn.”
Learn he did. From that game to the end of the season, a span of 26 games, Scheifele had 17 goals and 34 points, including a career high 10-game point streak.
“I want to take another big step next year. Being a guy that’s relied on to play against the other team’s best, and a guy that produces at a high rate,” said Scheifele, who also set a career high for goals with 29. “It’s a goal of mine for the summer, and I’m going to work hard to do that.”
One big step the franchise will talk about over the offseason is the naming of a new captain. Former Jet Andrew Ladd has been the only player to wear the captain’s ‘C’ since the team relocated to Winnipeg in 2011.
Wheeler, one of the Jets’ alternate captains, said there are a number of players in the room that showed leadership following Ladd’s departure at the trade deadline.
He says that leadership was shown over the last 20 games, when playoff hopes were slim, but the Jets remained consistent on the ice, including a four-game win streak over playoff bound teams to close out the season.
“I think everyone stepped up a little bit and had to take on a little bit more than they did before to show the young guys what it looks like every single day. The last 20 or so games could have gone off the rails pretty quick,” said Wheeler. “Obviously everyone wants to wear the C. I think there’s a lot of pride that comes with that.
“Given that opportunity, I would respect that and wear it with pride. With that being said, there’s going to be a lot of conversations had internally to try and find out who the best fit is for the organization.”
But for now, Wheeler’s focus is on recovery after a long season, and some much needed family time.
“I think after today they’ll probably strap handcuffs on me and not let me leave the house for a while,” Wheeler smiled. “It’s exciting. We have a little girl that we had last August that I barely know. I get to spend some time with her so I’m excited.”