Jets go out on a high

Paul Maurice felt it was a fitting conclusion for the man wearing the C.

This was the type of exclamation-point moment Blake Wheeler prefers would come under different circumstances, but was a prime example of the hard work he put it in during another challenging campaign with the Winnipeg Jets.

Challenging because Wheeler has missed the playoffs in five of the past six seasons as a member of the Jets and six of seven overall, dating back to the days he was traded by the Boston Bruins to the Atlanta Thrashers.

Wheeler would trade all of his personal glory for another shot at the Stanley Cup playoffs, but that doesn’t take away from the impact season he put together.

On Saturday night at MTS Centre, Wheeler converted a pass from Mark Scheifele with 44.6 seconds left in regulation to snap a tie with a shorthanded goal, propelling the Jets to a 2-1 victory over the playoff-bound Nashville Predators in the season finale.

“(Wheeler is) so consistent in everything that he did all year. Whether he was playing with two rookies, he just pushed himself,” said Maurice. “He just did a remarkable job, bringing the kids in, being an example for those kids, so it was nice for him to get one, get the last one, have it be meaningful in the situation that we’re in.”

Maurice has been around the NHL for a long time and he handed out a huge compliment to Wheeler during his post-game address.

“I’ve had a list of some pretty good captains, some Hall of Fame players, Ron Francis, Mats Sundin, Rod Brind’Amour, Kevin Dineen. (Wheeler) is right there,” said Maurice. “The job that he did there was as good as any job I’ve ever seen.”

Although it won’t carry the same meaning as it would have if it came a month or two earlier, the Jets strung together a franchise-record seven consecutive victories to end the season, leaving them with a record of 40-35-7, good for 87 points, fifth in the Central Division and ninth in the Western Conference.

Close, but not close enough.

But it wasn’t because of a lack of effort or production from Wheeler.

He may have finished slightly behind the pace that saw him produce 78 points last season to leave him tied for sixth in the NHL with Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau, but Wheeler still managed to top 70 points for the second time in his career.

With 26 goals and 74 points, Wheeler enters Sunday’s action tied for 11th place in the NHL and second on the team behind Scheifele, whose brilliant offensive season saw him record 32 goals and 82 points to lead a skilled group of forwards.

Throw in veterans like Bryan Little (21 goals, 47 points in 59 games) and Mathieu Perreault (13 goals and 45 points in 65 games), the addition of rookie sniper Patrik Laine (36 goals, 64 points) and the significant step Nikolaj Ehlers took (going from 15 goals and 38 points to 25 goals and 64 points), the Jets have more than enough offensive game breakers to get back to the post-season — provided they can clean up the defensive side of the game, improve the penalty kill, be more disciplined and get better goaltending.

There’s another wave of skilled offensive players on the way — whether it’s this fall or a bit further down the road — in Jack Roslovic (who made his NHL debut on Thursday) and Kyle Connor (who provided the tying goal on Saturday in what was his first game with the Jets since November 29).

Wheeler sees hope on the horizon.

“It’s been an up-and-down season, obviously, and there’s been a lot of frustrations but you look at the guys we have in our room, the amount of talent we have on the ice now, you just have to think our group is knocking on the door,” said Wheeler. “The city of Winnipeg should take a lot of pride in the fact our team didn’t quit. There are teams in this league that gave up down the stretch when they were out of it and we certainly did not.

“That means more than the wins. I mean the (wins) were great, they made it enjoyable to come to the rink in a bad situation but just being involved in games and just being in the fight with that group of guys, that’s what you start building the right things with.”

Speaking of building, Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck finished his first season as an NHL starter with a solid showing, making 33 saves to leave him with 26 wins and four shutouts in 58 appearances.

Hellebuyck endured some difficult times, but he’s joining Team USA for the upcoming 2017 IIHF world men’s hockey championship next month and then he’ll return to Michigan for the most important summer of training he’s ever had.

The Jets are expected to bring in some experienced competition for the No. 1 job, but Hellebuyck sounds like he’s up for the challenge.

“I learned so much. I could go through details with you guys, but at the end of the day, there’s a difference between being ready for the NHL and making a difference,” said Hellebuyck, who finished 26-19-4 with a 2.89 goals-against average, a .907 save percentage but was pulled eight times. “I’m starting to see that and now I really have a good focus for what I need to work on.

“I don’t like my weaknesses to get out there. I’m just going to work on my general game and come back a bigger, faster and stronger goalie next year.”


Winnipeg Jets stories