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Wheeler moves to centre as Jets shuffle forward lines

"I'm looking to help wherever I can." - Wheeler

by Mitchell Clinton @MitchellClinton / WinnipegJets.com

WINNIPEG - Head coach Paul Maurice had an idea of what he wanted to do with his lines with Bryan Little out due to injury.

He sent a quick text to his captain and got the answer he was looking for.

"I said this is the direction I'd like to consider and I had some line combinations," said Maurice. That direction? Moving Blake Wheeler to centre. 

"His answer was 'Yes. I'd love to,'" said Maurice. "Then we talked about it a little bit more.

"This was where I wanted to start because I've seen pieces of this together already. He was all for it."

Video: PRACTICE | Blake Wheeler

So there was Wheeler, skating between Nikolaj Ehlers and Jack Roslovic during Thursday's 45-minute practice.

Of course, it's a position Wheeler played before. The last time was during Mark Scheifele's absence two seasons ago when the Jets went 11-2-3. During that span, Wheeler won nearly 50 per cent of his face-offs, a skill he rarely has to use on the wing.

But ultimately, he knows one of the main assets he and his line will bring to the ice is speed.

"I think playing with Jack and Fly, our line can be pretty fast up and down the ice. I think there is going to be a lot of north-south speed," said Wheeler. "Playing in the middle is going to allow me to carry the puck a little bit more, play with it a bit more. 

"Those guys match where our game needs to go - fly up the ice with speed, try to make our plays with speed, and from there we can open some things up and make some seam plays. I liked our practice."

Maurice feels Wheeler may end up with the puck on his stick more often playing in the middle, but he said his ability to move Wheeler into the middle is also a function of the play of his two wingers this season.

"When they were together and Bryan came off his (concussion) I really liked the two of them," said Maurice. "I'd like to see that speed in the middle with that speed on the wings. I've been interested in seeing Kyle (Connor), Mark (Scheifele), and Patrik (Laine) play together for a while. But I needed Patrik to get his intensity game up, I think he's done that for us this year. He's in a position to make it work. I want to see it. 

"There are lots of places we can go with this, but this is the one I was most interested in seeing."

Video: PRACTICE | Mark Scheifele

Ehlers leads the Jets in goals with seven and is second on the team in points with 14. He also spent time with Wheeler at centre during the 16 games Scheifele was out of the line-up during the 2017-18 campaign.

"He's not as bad as he thinks he is," Ehlers said with a grin. "It's a great line that they've put together in practice today. We had some chemistry out there. Everyone has played together at least once. We're excited. We're going to use our speed as much as we can because I think that's the strength of all three (players)."

The rest of the Jets lines looked like this:

Connor-Scheifele-Laine

Ehlers-Wheeler-Roslovic

Copp-Lowry-Perreault

Luoto-Gustafsson-Shaw

Morrissey-Poolman

Kulikov-Pionk

Beaulieu-Dahlstrom

Bitetto-Sbisa

Scheifele is confident Wheeler can handle the additional defensive responsibility that comes with playing in the middle as opposed to the wing.

He said Wheeler's willingness to move to centre and every player's ability to adapt to a new role and new linemates is important.

"You need other guys to step up when a key guy like Bryan goes down. We need everyone to step up a little bit and push a little more. That's on all of us," said Scheifele, who looks forward to playing with Laine and Connor.

"We've played together a lot, but we have a lot of skilled players on this team, a lot of guys that can create offence. It's a very different look but I'm excited for the new look and to see how it goes. Tomorrow will be a fun test."

Video: PRACTICE | Paul Maurice

It's just the latest challenge that faces this Jets line-up, which has seen numerous injuries since the start of the season.

It was announced Thursday that in addition to Little's injury, Gabriel Bourque will also miss the next four weeks with a lower-body injury.

The Jets called up Joona Luoto from the Manitoba Moose as a result.

But each challenge this season has been met with the same resolve from the Jets dressing room.

"I think we've had a great room from the start," said Maurice. 

"Even for the coach, I don't have a stall in the room. But you can tell on the bench - and I think it's a part of why we've been able to come back in games and battle back - they're playing for each other. They're staying in the fight. That's the biggest part of comebacks in games and we've had a bunch of them."

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