If an NHL player misses six games because of an injury, it’s not usually considered that big a deal.
But in the case of the Winnipeg Jets’ Blake Wheeler, it was noted — and newsworthy — when the veteran right-winger was forced to the sidelines for six straight games as a result of a diagnosed concussion after taking an elbow from Ottawa’s Brady Tkachuk in an April 5th, 4-3 win over the Senators.
Prior to that injury, the Winnipeg Captain had missed only six games in total during his first nine-plus seasons with the franchise since it relocated from Atlanta.
So Wheeler’s return was a topic of discussion following his first full practice with his teammates on Tuesday morning at Bell MTS Place where the Jets will resume a five-game homestand Thursday night against Toronto.
“I feel good today, just leave it at that,” said Wheeler when asked for a comparison of how he was feeling a week ago. “Taking it through the stages day-by-day doesn’t do any good.”
“I’m thankful to be on a team with a staff that allowed me to fully heal.”
And Wheeler isn’t holding any grudges towards Tkachuk for delivering the elbow that landed the Winnipeg captain in concussion protocol.
“I think things happen in the course of a game. At the time I didn’t think much of it. It is what it is,” was how Wheeler summed up the incident.
“I think sometimes when you’re a bigger guy, sometimes elbows get a little high, but I’m not losing any sleep over it. I think I’ve probably done something similar, trying to protect the puck in the past.”
Wheeler is renowned for his ability to play through pain and negotiate his way to staying in the lineup, as opposed to having to take a night off. But even he said there was little or no debate ahead of last Saturday’s 3-0 loss to Edmonton, even though he had been cleared to play.
“Sometimes you need to take a step back, and being away from it for a week allows you to take a step back and just realize what the injury was that I was dealing with,” explained Wheeler. “There’s just no sense rushing back from something that happens to your head. It just doesn’t do any good, even though I was cleared and had been skating and ramped up.”
A couple of factors that tilted the scales in favour of taking the extra time was that Wheeler had not skated with the team in a full practice — which has usually been the determining factor for any player to return since Paul Maurice came on board as head coach. And there was no urgency with the team coming off a 4-1 road trip.
“It was unnecessary, to put it quite bluntly,” admitted Wheeler. “I think that’s where the guys allowing me to take a step back and not only think of myself as a player and try to get back for the team and be on the ice whenever I can — that was an important conversation — just that honestly getting these four days in addition to the two days, in the long run, is going to make a world of difference.”
Star goaltender Connor Hellebuyck says having a full and healthy lineup is going to be a must for when the playoffs are scheduled to begin just under a month from now.
“Especially in this North Division. It’s tough, it’s a grind, and we need every single guy,” the reigning Vezina Trophy winner responded when asked about the significance of Wheeler’s return. “He adds depth to our lineup and a voice in our locker room. He’s going to be our confidence moving forward for sure.”
The return of Wheeler also resulted in a reunion with Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor at Tuesday’s practice, a move Maurice had been suggesting would happen at some point in advance of the playoffs.
“We just want him to feel as good as I think he felt today,” said the Jets head coach during his post-practice Zoom call availability. “He was scoring goals, that line looked like it was moving again today. And I think it put a lot of other pieces in a really good spot for us.”
Some of those moves included Pierre-Luc Dubois skating between Paul Stastny and Nikolaj Ehlers, another combination Maurice has been contemplating going with upfront.
“I see him (Dubois) as a center iceman, and while I don’t know that we’re in a development phase, we need him to continue to get experience at center ice, and I see that as his best position,” said the veteran bench boss, who also wouldn’t mind at all if his No.1 line of Wheeler-Scheifele and Connor rediscovered some of the magic they had during the 2018 playoff run. “I’d like to see that kind of chemistry get reignited — get more of a playoff style of hockey. That’s when they’re at their best.”
Maurice also had a message for media and fans who don’t feel Dubois has been the real deal since being acquired from Columbus in the Jan. 23 blockbuster deal for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic. “Don’t say it too loudly, it’s gonna come back to haunt you,” warned Maurice to those who are ready to write that trade off as a failure for the Jets. “When I go through his game, there’s not a lot of positioning issues. He’s got an intelligence that you can not teach a player.”
And Maurice is confident the best is yet to — and will — come, when it comes to the future of the 22-year-old center. “He’s going to get bigger, faster, stronger — define his game. He’s going to become a dominant power forward as a center iceman in this league.
“If you bought a sweater with his name on the back, hang on to it. It’s gonna be good.”