The Winnipeg Jets are not going to have their team captain in the lineup for the foreseeable future. At least that was the indication from head coach Paul Maurice following Monday’s practice at Canada Life Centre when he was asked for an update on the status of Blake Wheeler, who suffered an apparent right leg or knee injury in the third period of Friday’s 4-3 shootout loss in Vancouver.
“We’ll just say this is weeks, not days,” said Maurice. “Probably another three or four days, all the swelling will come down and we’ll have a better idea on how long it’s going to be. But it’s going to be weeks.”
Wheeler was playing what was his best game of this season — and perhaps of 2021 — when Canucks forward Vasily Podkolzin accidentally slid into the Jets captain’s right leg and buckled it. Wheeler was in immediate pain and grabbed his right knee before being attended to by the team’s medical staff.
The 35-year-old forward had ended a 21-game season-opening goalless drought in the first period and had some quality chances to add a few more in firing seven shots at Vancouver goalie Thatcher Demko prior to getting injured just before the midway mark of the final period.
Wheeler was reunited with Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor on Nov. 27 in a 4-2 win at Calgary, and in the almost seven games that trio played together, they combined for 12 goals and 20 assists for 32 points.
“You’re going to miss the player, for sure,” said Maurice. “What’s really tough is the game that they had. They were dominant in that game and looked like they were, as they say, feeling it.”
Initially, it will be Andrew Copp who will try to fill the void. He played with Scheifele and Connor early in the season in a 6-5 overtime loss at Minnesota and that threesome connected for three goals and eight points. It didn’t stay together because Scheifele went into COVID-19 protocol and missed the next five games.
Copp long ago established himself as the equivalent of a Swiss Army Knife for the Jets and is looking at this latest assignment as just an extension of what he does.
“Those two have been really hot, just trying to add what I do to the line and hopefully they kind of continue their success,” said the man who has played with just about every forward on the team at one point or another over the past several seasons.
The loss of Wheeler will also impact the power play, as Copp will move up to play the slot position on the No. 1 unit while Scheifele will slide over to the right-side half boards and quarterback things from there. Copp says he will have to adjust after working with Nikolaj Ehlers from the left side on the second unit.
“I’m not used to having a rightie on the other side so it is a little different,” Copp said after Monday’s practice. “The biggest thing for me is when we do break out the puck is for us to get zone entries and we’ve been pretty good at that.”
The Jets have converted six of 19 chances with the extra skater over the past five games after being mired in a 2-for-36 slump during an almost 13-game stretch.
It also won’t hurt that top-four defenceman Neal Pionk will be returning to action on Tuesday night against Buffalo after missing the three previous games serving a suspension and also being sidelined with a concussion. Pionk says he experienced symptoms for about the first four days after Toronto’s Jason Spezza kneed him in the head — presumably in retaliation for the Winnipeg defenceman colliding knee on knee with Maple Leafs blue-liner Rasmus Sandin just moments earlier.
Pionk will return to man the point on the first power-play unit and says he takes full responsibility for the two-game suspension he was given by the NHL Department of Player Safety the next day after that 6-3 win on Dec. 5 at Canada Life Centre.
“I’m not out there to hurt anybody, or have any sort of intent,” Pionk said when asked if the incident would force him to alter his usual physical style. “It made me sick watching him go off the ice, and he’s limping off the ice. He’s a great young defenceman and I never want to cut his career short, so there’s remorse there. I understand what I did wasn’t right and I accepted that.”
And at least for Tuesday’s game, the Jets won’t be calling any players up from their Manitoba Moose AHL affiliate after there was a positive test for COVID-19 on Monday. As a result, Maurice says it’s very likely Winnipeg will stick with the 18 healthy skaters they have for the 7 p.m. faceoff against the Sabres.
“We want to make sure we get everybody tested a bunch of times so that we’re not bringing in somebody that we’re not sure of.”