Blake Wheeler’s return to Winnipeg shows why the fans and the team miss him

WINNIPEG — As Winnipeg’s captain, Blake Wheeler had cracked ribs and played through it. You could often see him hunched awkwardly on the Jets’ bench between shifts, trying to breathe through the pain. Last season, he ruptured a testicle against Nashville, returned to the game, and only later realized he would need to have a medical procedure and take time off the ice.

On Monday night in Winnipeg, the New York Rangers forward gave into pain of an entirely different nature.

Asked about the Jets’ lengthy video tribute, the standing ovation he received, and what it felt like to watch clips of his 12-year career with Winnipeg, Wheeler spoke to the pain of being in the spotlight. Faced with a ceremonial tribute to his own legacy, Wheeler found himself uncomfortable to the point of wanting to escape.

“I wanted them to stop,” he told reporters in the Rangers’ dressing room, before getting sentimental. “I’ve used the word grateful a million times now, but that was the first emotion. I was choking back some tears. But overall, you just feel a little uncomfortable having all of that for you.”

Wheeler was visibly emotional throughout the tribute.

The video was shown on the scoreboard midway through the first period of what became a Rangers 3-2 overtime win. Wheeler choked up on the bench, then took the ice, waved at the crowd, gestured to his heart, and pointed to Winnipeg’s bench. Earlier in the day, he’d said that he was proud of Adam Lowry, Mark Scheifele, Connor Hellebuyck, and so many of his former teammates for the players they’d become. Wheeler said his heartfelt gesture to them came from a place of love.

“I love those guys and they know that. I’m cheering for them every game, except for tonight. I want nothing but the best for this organization and those guys,” Wheeler said. “I’m happy that as many guys as I’ve played with over the years were still on that bench, to kind of share in that. So many of them are going to have their moment one day and I look forward to being part of that.”

Wheeler looked rejuvenated by the festivities, taking four shots in the first period but failing to register a point for his ninth straight game as a Ranger. At five-on-five, where Wheeler used to dominate games, Winnipeg controlled the flow of play with him on the ice. His shooting efforts did include one tough stop for Hellebuyck but the former great was part of only one highlight-reel goal — and it belonged to 23-year-old Jets forward, David Gustafsson.

New York opened the scoring 18:24 into the first period, with Artemi Panarin deflecting a perfectly executed slap pass from former Jets defenceman Jacob Trouba. But Wheeler misplayed a puck in the Jets zone, leading to a long Jets rush on the stick of Cole Perfetti. Wheeler didn’t quit — he’s not wired that way — and tracked back, hassling Perfetti the whole way up the ice. But the 21-year-old kept Wheeler on his back, protecting the puck until he could make the pass that Gustafsson turned into a goal.

Perfetti and Wheeler are at opposite ends of their NHL careers — Wheeler watching his impact and minutes fade, Perfetti fighting to get a bigger nightly workload. If Wheeler’s departure passes the torch to Scheifele, Lowry, Hellebuyck, and Josh Morrissey, then Perfetti represents the next generation of youth that could push the Jets over the top — if all goes extremely well.

On this play, everything ended perfectly for the Jets:

Perfetti is a cerebral player whose read of the ice created the goal. Watch the way he recognizes that the Rangers’ defencemen are stepping up on him, adjusting his speed and angle to keep space between himself and his coverage. Then, when Wheeler catches up, Perfetti boxes him out, both defencemen collapse to the middle, and Perfetti makes his play. Gustafsson’s skate-to-stick play is excellent and the finish is perfect.

Here’s how Perfetti broke it down.

“I know their D. They had a really good gap all night. They really weren’t giving us the line,” Perfetti said. “It sucks dumping the puck in all the time, so I was just trying to make a play. I knew I had JMo coming up the left side and I saw Gussy busting his hump coming up the side. I knew Wheels was on me, behind me, so I was just trying to buy as much time as I could to wait for either one of JMo or Gussy to be open and both D ended up coming at me. Wheels was on my back and I just thought, OK, he’s obviously got a long stick, big body, so I just tried to get my body in front of his stick and give him the littlest chance as possible to get his stick on the puck, and it ended up being able to draw the D in. I then walked it over to Gus and he had a great shot and a big goal.”

That’s an awful lot of information baked into seven seconds of gameplay. Perfetti’s processing power is part of Winnipeg’s confidence that it can move forward from the Wheeler era without enduring the growing pains of a rebuild.

Perfetti assisted Gustafsson’s 1-1 goal in the first period and Nikolaj Ehlers’ go-ahead goal 5:08 into the third period. Perfetti took Ehlers’ spot on the Jets’ top power play, played his first overtime shifts of the season, and was not taken off the ice by his coaches late in the game. His late-game benchings were a trend that seemed to indicate he’d yet to earn his coaches’ trust, despite Winnipeg outscoring their opposition 6-3 and outshooting their opposition 68-33 during Perfetti’s five-on-five shifts.

“Everyone wants to play. I know I certainly do,” Perfetti told me after the game. “I want to get as much opportunity as I can and play as much as I can. It has been nice the last couple games here getting a lot of ice time. I like that, I feel good with my game when that happens. It feels like you’re touching the puck a lot, your legs are under you and you get a lot of confidence like that. Hopefully (I’ll) just keep building trust. As a young guy, I’m just trying to build trust every day in practice and games and earn more and more.”

The reason Winnipeg lost to New York on Monday night was not about Perfetti’s minutes or Wheeler’s Jets tenure. Winnipeg lost because its power play failed to score a goal for the fourth straight game. The Jets’ top unit of Scheifele, Perfetti, Kyle Connor, Alex Iafallo, and Morrissey gained the zone with ease and then failed to open up New York’s patient, compact penalty-killing structure. Winnipeg’s ideas seemed to dry up, shots didn’t get through, and even a lengthy four-on-three overtime power play didn’t lead to a goal.

“Tonight, their power play scored, ours didn’t, and that’s the difference in the game,” said interim Jets head coach Scott Arniel. “I thought we played a heck of a hockey game five-on-five against one of the top teams right now. We gave up one scoring chance five-on-five in the second, one scoring chance five-on-five in the third against that team and, like I said, special teams were the difference.”

Winnipeg’s power play is now ranked 26th in the league with an 8.8 percent efficiency rate. The Jets particularly need players like Scheifele and Connor to produce with the man advantage because they’ve gone a bit quiet at even strength since Gabriel Vilardi’s injury. Scheifele’s two-way game has been on point, with a doggedness on the backcheck that often wins pucks, but Connor has struggled at the blue lines. He’s made giveaways on zone exits and giveaways trying to stickhandle through his opposition that have stalled the top line’s momentum.

It’s certainly not that they’re playing poorly. It’s that Scheifele and Connor are getting roughly 50 percent of the scoring chances and exactly 50 percent of the goals when on the ice together at five-on-five. Winnipeg is a deep team, particularly up front, and particularly when Lowry’s line is scoring. It can become a special team if its top line can do better than saw off its opposition — or score enough on the power play to make up for being average at five-on-five. The goal is to be competitive this season so the Jets need one or both of those things to start happening fast.

Wheeler used to provide both of those things. At his peak, there were few players who controlled five-on-five hockey better than Wheeler did. His power-play passing to Scheifele, Dustin Byfuglien, and Patrik Laine helped make Winnipeg a Stanley Cup contender for a brief period of time.

Winnipeg needs to find long-term solutions without Wheeler — a point made abundantly clear on his first game against his old team.

In the meantime, full credit to Jets fans whose rapturous applause was so loud it was difficult to hear Wheeler’s tribute at press level.

“Getting an ovation like that, it feels great to know that you made an impact,” Wheeler said. “This community, this town and this organization has been such a huge part of our lives and it will continue to be going forward.”

(Photo: James Carey Lauder / USA Today)

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