The Winnipeg Jets have struggled again this season but one player who has lifted his game to a new level is forward Blake Wheeler.
He has consistently been one of the team’s top scorers and has already set a personal best with 27 goals this season entering play Thursday against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has also tied a career high with 64 points with five games to go.
His previous best was 21 goals in his rookie season with Boston in 2008-’09, yet he still doesn’t think of himself as a sniper.
“It doesn’t come as natural for me, being a quote-unquote goal-scorer,” he said Thursday after practice. “But I like to create offence and get myself in those scoring areas and when you do that you’re going to find yourself with opportunities to put the puck in the net.”
The 26-year-old native of Robbinsdale, Minn., was drafted by the Phoenix Coyotes with the fifth overall pick in 2004. The two sides couldn’t agree on a contract and he eventually signed with the Bruins as a free agent in 2008.
Wheeler was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers early in 2011, moved with them to Winnipeg that summer and has played all three seasons with the Jets in their new home.
A rangy 6-foot-5 and 205 pounds, the right-winger’s nickname is Wheels and he certainly has them. The speed and size of players like Wheeler stood out for Paul Maurice when he first took over as head coach earlier this season.
The Jets have done a lot of tinkering with line combinations this season but being on a line with Wheeler has turned into a good way to improve statistics.
Dustin Byfuglien, who moved from defence to forward mid-season and anchors the left side with Wheeler, had 20 goals and a career-high 55 points entering play Thursday.
In fact, coach Paul Maurice said that’s one of the reasons Evander Kane’s production this season hasn’t matched previous seasons, although injuries — both to Kane and others — have played a factor.
Kane, who has missed 18 games, spent some time on the left side of a line with Wheeler and rookie centre Mark Scheifele. It was a potent combination but injuries prevented a consistent run as linemates.
“Whoever hasn’t played on Wheeler’s wing, the other side, their numbers are down,” said Maurice.
Wheeler had his own struggles at times this season. He went 14 games in November without scoring a goal and had only eight assists over the stretch.
He got tired of the questions but found his touch again before joining the U.S. team at the Sochi Olympics. Wheeler had another scoring drought in early March but found the back of the net in three of the last four games ahead of the Pittsburgh matchup.
Wheeler insists he isn’t doing anything differently.
“I think a couple of years ago I found something that really works for me, my preparation, how I come to the rink every day and I think that’s just gotten stronger,” he said.
“I show up to work ready to get better every day. It’s a cliche, obviously, but I take it to heart when I come through these doors.”
He added that his attitude and effort are the only things he can control and while he seems to show more patience on the ice, he doesn’t think that lies behind his increased goal production.
“I think I’ve gotten better about (knowing) where you score goals in this league,” he said. “There’s certain areas you score from and you try to get in those areas and you seem to find better opportunities to put the puck in the net.”