The Winnipeg Jets string of 14 consecutive games with the same 18 skaters will come to an end with their team captain out of the lineup “indefinitely.”
Following Wednesday morning’s practice at Bell MTS Place, Jets head coach Paul Maurice confirmed that Blake Wheeler would not be accompanying the team for the start of a five-game road trip Thursday night in Montreal.
That ends a streak of 194 consecutive games played for Wheeler since being given the night off “on coach’s orders” back on April 3, 2018 — ironically enough, also in Montreal.
Wheeler took an elbow to the head from Ottawa’s Brady Tkachuk late in the second period of Monday night’s 4-3 win over Ottawa but remained in the game. The Wednesday night of the week before, the team captain missed the final two periods of a 3-1 loss at home to Toronto after suffering an undisclosed injury in the first period that resulted in him playing just five shifts and 5:18.
Maurice said Wheeler felt a little “off” on Tuesday and “wasn’t feeling great” before practice on Wednesday but said the team was still waiting for a confirmed diagnosis of a concussion. “We don’t have a diagnosis on that yet, but we’re going to treat it as it is — just because we’re obviously really careful with these things,” said the Jets coach during a post-practice Zoom call with the media.
“So we’re not bringing him. We don’t want him flying in and out until we know exactly what’s going to happen.”
“So he’s out, I guess I’ll say indefinitely until we get this cleared up.”
As per NHL COVID-19 protocols, Wheeler would have to quarantine if he was to fly commercially. So unless he was to take a private flight to re-join the team later in the trip, it’s likely the veteran right-winger will miss multiple games for the first time in more than six years — he was not in the lineup for home games against Dallas and St. Louis on Feb. 24 and 26 of 2015.
It would appear as though the trickle-down effect of Wheeler’s absence will see the very versatile Andrew Copp move up the rotation to play with Paul Stastny and Pierre-Luc Dubois. Mathieu Perreault would take Copp’s spot on the third line with Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton, and Jansen Harkins would see his first action since a 2-0 win at Vancouver back on Feb. 19.
Harkins was “healthy scratched” the following game to make room for the return of Dubois, and hasn’t played for 22 straight games overall. Although he did take the pregame skate last Friday after being told to be ready in the event Wheeler couldn’t play.
“It’s funny the way things happen because he and I talked on the ice, probably three days ago, about how unusual this year has been for Harkins, Heinola, and Niku — these guys that are on the cusp of playing,” recalled Maurice of that recent conversation with Harkins. “If you looked at our schedule and followed history over the last five years you’d have thought these guys would never miss a game — you’re never that healthy. So I just gave him (Harkins) the old ‘hang in there and work hard’ and he’s been good about that. I’m expecting him to kinda come in with lots of legs and lots of energy.”
Harkins has yet to pick up a point in 12 games this season after “breaking through” a year ago with 2-5-7 in 29 games played, followed by a strong post-season performance in the Edmonton bubble.
Wheeler is fourth in team scoring with 10-22-32 but was low man in the plus-minus ranking at -15 on the season. There will be many parts of the game, on and off the ice, where he will be missed, but perhaps none more when the Jets are enjoying the man advantage as that No. 1 powerplay definitely runs through the captain.
During practice on Wednesday, the Jets also had a scare when Mark Scheifele took a puck up high from a re-directed pass.
“It caught me right in the throat so it definitely hurt a little bit,” said Scheifele afterward. “But we were working on PP and I wasn’t going to stop the drill just for that. Maybe I’ll have a little bit of a bruise, but no worse for wear.”
The Jets are 4-2 versus 4th place Montreal this season, but the last three victories have all come in overtime while both of the Canadiens wins have been in regulation.
Winnipeg has also recalled forward Kristian Vesalainen from the AHL’s Manitoba Moose and assigned for their 2017 first-round draft pick to the taxi squad.
Thursday’s broadcast on 680 CJOB gets underway with the Anchor Products Pregame show at 4 p.m., followed by the play-by-play at 6 p.m. with Paul Edmonds and Jamie Thomas.