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Jets' Wheeler focused on playing beyond 82 games

by Davis Harper continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.

Blake Wheeler wants you to know that he's got a great job, and nobody -- not his Winnipeg Jets teammates, not the prospects in St. John's, not you -- is taking it off his hands anytime soon.

"You always have that feeling from when you were a young player in the League," Wheeler said. "You never want to miss a shift, you never want to miss a rep, because there's always somebody gunning for your job. So the more you can be on the ice, the better. You never want to miss any time."

Since entering the NHL with the Boston Bruins in 2008-09, Wheeler barely has. In six seasons, the 28-year-old has missed four games. He last sat out on Jan. 17, 2012, after being hit in the throat with a puck two games prior. Over the 166 consecutive games since, Wheeler has solidified his position as one of the most reliable and consistent performers in the League.

Wheeler enjoyed his most impressive season as an NHL player in 2013-14, despite playing for a makeshift Jets team that underwent a coaching change at midseason. He set career highs and led the Jets in goals (28) and points (69), the third straight season he has led them in at least one of those categories. He had similar numbers under each coach, Claude Noel and Paul Maurice, and finished the season with career highs in power-play goals (eight) and game-winning goals (four). Wheeler also played six games for the United States at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Despite his breakout season, Wheeler sees room for improvement. He was unhappy with his start to the season, when he managed nine points over his first 17 games, a stretch when the Jets went 6-9-2. This year, Wheeler returned to Winnipeg a few weeks earlier than normal to get himself into the best shape possible ahead of the new season.

"I haven't been great about the last couple years, for whatever reason, I've gotten off to slow starts," Wheeler said. "Collectively as a team, we've been guilty of that as well. I want to come in in great shape, have a really strong camp, play well in the preseason and then have that carry over into the first game."

Wheeler, who will serve as an alternate captain this season, is a key part of the Jets' core, a group of players including Bryan Little, Evander Kane, Tobias Enstrom, Zach Bogosian and Mark Stuart. Each of these players is signed at least through 2017-18, and Wheeler thinks the pieces are in place for the franchise's first appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since the Atlanta Thrashers made their lone trip in 2007.

Blake Wheeler
Right Wing - WPG
GOALS: 28 | ASST: 41 | PTS: 69
SOG: 225 | +/-: 4
"They've done a good job locking those guys in long term and identifying that these are the guys who will take us where we want to go," Wheeler said. "Now it's just a matter of building around that core, and I think that's kind of where we're at right now."

Wheeler is also excited to play a full season under Maurice, a coach who shares his priorities of fitness, accountability and a team-first mentality. Wheeler said Maurice "removed the handcuffs" when he took the job in mid-January, and the Jets responded with a 9-2-0 run before injuries and inconsistency crippled a late postseason push. Ultimately, the Jets finished last in a competitive Central Division.

"That's what I look at," Wheeler said of the hot stretch after Maurice took the reins. "That's what gives me hope and confidence that we're pointed in the right direction. We've got some tough teams in our division. We're not stupid. But we feel like we're in that mix, and we're not going to make it easy to come into Winnipeg and win games there."

Ultimately, Wheeler takes pride in his perfect attendance record, but he knows that playing all 82 games means nothing if he can't help the Jets reach an 83rd.

"It's been a few too many years here just playing 82 games," Wheeler said. "The summers have been long. I'm just excited to get off to a good start and surprise some people right out of the gate."

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