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Wheeler makes impact as Jets captain

Forward playing huge role in Winnipeg's 12-4-3 start

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

WINNIPEG -- Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler's impact on the ice is easy to document.

The 31-year-old from Robbinsdale, Minnesota was tied for sixth in NHL scoring through Saturday with 25 points (five goals, 20 assists) in 19 games.

Since being named Jets captain Aug. 31, 2016, Wheeler is eighth in League scoring with 99 points in 101 games, producing more than other prominent players such as Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl (91 points), Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews (90), Dallas Stars forwards Jamie Benn (90) and Tyler Seguin (90), Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin (89) and New York Islanders forward John Tavares (88).

With Wheeler's help, the Jets have started 12-4-3 heading into a four-game road trip that begins at the Nashville Predators on Monday (8 p.m. ET; TSN3, FS-TN, NHL.TV).

It's off the ice where Wheeler has not only embraced his role, but helped foster the Jets' growth.

"We have other leaders in this room as well, but you can see a leader, he's somebody who's good on and off the ice," said forward Nikolaj Ehlers, 21, the ninth pick of the 2014 NHL Draft. "And he's like that every single day. And when young guys come into the League, like I did a few years ago, we look up to guys like him. And that's what a leader does."

Wheeler's intensity has long been a trademark. But as Jets captain, he has said he hopes to be a little less heart-on-sleeve in the emotional cauldron that a Canadian market can be.

Video: Wheeler on the importance of Jets' return to Winnipeg

Even that self-critique resonates with his teammates.

"I think every year you're a captain in this league, you learn more and more," said Mark Scheifele, 24, Wheeler's regular center. "That's just him learning, more about himself and more about what this team needs. That just speaks volumes about him, that he sees the team needs a less-serious guy, just a little more laid back. Not a matter of joking around all the time, but not having the ups and downs, trying to keep that even-keel.

"When you see a guy like Sidney Crosby, no matter what interview it is, it's the same way no matter what happens, because he's confident. I think that's what [Wheeler] has, the confidence in this room and in his game as well."

Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey, 22, is in his second NHL season and said Wheeler's intensity is "the heartbeat of our team."

"He has an intense fire about him," Morrissey said. "Every day, he's the hardest-working guy, he's intense and he's always working on his game. His fiery side, that's what you want in a leader. Everyone leads differently, but I love that about him. He holds himself more accountable than he holds anyone else in the locker room accountable.

"When you have a guy like that, who holds himself to such a high standard as far as compete and execution … now when he talks in the locker room and he wants a little more out of the group, you believe him and you want to listen to him because he's doing that himself. That's something everyone can relate to and want to get behind."

Wheeler downplays his own evolution as captain, believing his and the Jets' progress is a collective effort.

"I don't think I've changed who I am," Wheeler said. "As a whole, you try to treat each guy as an individual. You learn a lot about the guys, what makes them tick. It's been helpful getting to know the guys, and I've been around most of these guys for a long time.

"We have a close group, so it's been good. It's not just all on me. We have a bunch of guys who are vocal in the locker room and when you're winning, it makes it exciting to come to the room every day. It's not just all on me. It's been a group effort."

Wheeler's eye for the big picture has struck a chord in Winnipeg.

Through good and bad times, even before he became captain, he has been consistently focused on playing the right way and helping nurture growth in a young team. He also has a good handle the importance of the organization in the fabric of Manitoba and its capital city.

Wheeler spoke at the second annual Winnipeg Jets Hall of Fame luncheon that honored the newest inductee, Dale Hawerchuk, last Wednesday.

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

He said he was grateful for all the past contributions from Hawerchuk and from last year's inductees, Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson, who were also in attendance, and pointed to the 2016 Tim Hortons Heritage Classic and its accompanying alumni game in Winnipeg as a revelation for the present-day Jets.

"When you come into a new city - the Thrashers didn't have much of a history or much culture (in Atlanta) - so we didn't have much of that," Wheeler said. "And the connection really hadn't been made between the first version of the Jets and us. I think people were just so excited about having a team that it was kind of all about us.

"Seeing those guys come back, you could tell how appreciative they were to be recognized. Not much is said about those great teams that were here. So, it was cool to see how meaningful those guys were, guys like Dale, like Teemu (Selanne), how meaningful and impactful they were on the community here and just how close they were to being a championship-caliber team.

"It helps strike a chord. You go down the list of teams that have some tradition, where you put on that sweater and it means something, so I think it means a little more now knowing what went on before us."

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