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Wheeler, Jets focused on speed ahead of season opening road trip

"I think there is a lot to be excited about." -Wheeler

by Mitchell Clinton @MitchellClinton /

WINNIPEG - Paul Maurice's voice could be heard numerous times during practice on Monday.

"Quick! Quick! Quick!"

For 45 minutes, the Winnipeg Jets moved up and down the ice at Canada Life Centre, switching between five-on-five drills and special teams work.

But the message from the coach stayed the same - whatever you do, do it quickly.

Maurice's instructions were heard loud and clear from team captain, Blake Wheeler. It's something that has been preached since the first day of training camp.

"Our team is built a different way now," said Wheeler. "Just trying to get accommodated to some new faces and some new ways we can play the game, a little more up tempo and use some of our strengths. I think there is a lot to be excited about."

Equally as exciting for Wheeler is the start of a new season and the promise that comes with it.

Video: PRACTICE | Schmidt, Wheeler

Wednesday night will be Wheeler's 11th season opener with the Jets (making him the only player on the roster that has played in all 11 since 2011). He's knocking on the door of the 1,000 career game milestone - he currently sits at 981 - but even a veteran like him still gets pumped about opening night.

"With our team and our dressing room, just everything we've put together, it's created a good atmosphere around us," said Wheeler. "So it's been exciting to be a part of so far."

As much potential as the 2021-22 season has, it also comes with a lot of unpredictability.

The Jets haven't played against an opponent from the United States since March 9, 2020 - a 4-2 victory over the Arizona Coyotes.

Now, the Coyotes join the Jets in the Central Division. And they're just one of the seven American teams in the division the Jets haven't seen in nearly two years.

Let alone what's to come from the Pacific, Metropolitan, and Atlantic Divisions.

"Our division is always tough. The teams are always tough, top to bottom," said Wheeler. "It's always one of the toughest divisions, I find, just depth-wise, there are no easy nights. I'm not saying it's a fun division to play in, but it's a fun division in the sense that you're challenged every game. There's no off-nights."

So the preparations for the Anaheim Ducks on Wednesday night have mostly been based on the seven preseason games the Ducks have played.

They went 3-4-0 in those games, and Maurice has noticed a shift in their style of play.

"They've brought some new coaches in, it affects some of the systems, we think," Maurice said. "I think they're moving more toward an Eastern Conference speed, skill, that kind of style of game - a lot of quickness, effective on their forecheck but not necessarily by running you at the end boards, but getting on the puck, moving as five, really aggressive in their D pinching and their D gap closures.

"So if you're real fast, you've got a chance to win and if you're not, you don't."

Video: PRACTICE | Paul Maurice

The Jets will be without Mark Scheifele in the season opener as he serves the final game of a four-game suspension handed down in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

So the lines - and power play units - reflected that.









The change to Wheeler's power play unit (which Scheifele is normally on) had Adam Lowry parked at the net front position, with Kyle Connor, Neal Pionk, and Pierre-Luc Dubois rounding out the five-man group.

At the other end of the ice, Nate Schmidt, Josh Morrissey, Nikolaj Ehlers, Andrew Copp, and Paul Stastny worked as another power play group.

As much as the reps were important for those power play units, they are just as important for the penalty killers.

"That's the area of work, probably, the area of discovery for our team, is the penalty kill," Maurice said. "There's always something on every team that's an area. So, our fourth line and the penalty killing, because we may end up needing to split Lowry and Copp. But you've got a guy like Paul Stastny who's killed his whole career, we just didn't really need him to in the past and thought from a minutes point of view that made some sense."

The Jets have one more practice on Tuesday before they hop on a plane to California to begin a season-opening three-game road trip.

In fact, they'll play six of their first eight games on the road. Something that doesn't bother Maurice one bit.

"I would also prefer starting on the road," he said. "The game's usually a little bit loose, teams are still dialing all their systems in, they're integrating new people. So being on the road usually is a good thing. 

"It's not the same as it was 25 years ago. The road used to be a scary place at certain times. The game's changed, the style of hockey's changed. It's a different animal, being on the road."

That off-ice team bonding doesn't happen quickly, even if everything the Jets do on the ice is.

"The part of the game that you really remember as you go through the years are some of those moments, some of the things you do away from the rink or in the dressing room or some of those good experiences you have to be able to get together and bond outside of the rink in some places that we get to go," Wheeler said. "Having just a little bit of a normal rhythm is going to be good for everyone."

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