Wheeler keeps things level as Jets open camp with optimism, few distractions

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Maybe Blake Wheeler was a little fed up with the hype around the Winnipeg Jets, or maybe he just wanted to make sure the collective heads in the locker room didn’t swell too much. Either way, Wheeler, the Jets captain and most influential voice, was quick to dismiss a question from a reporter he clearly viewed as hyperbolic.

With moves made over the summer including a pair of rallies to bolster defense and a few contract extensions up front to maintain consistency with forwards – which complement all of the high-end goalkeepers qu ‘they have with Connor Hellebuyck – Wheeler was asked if this was the best team, on paper, is that what he’s seen in his 11 years with the Jets?

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Blake Wheeler of the Winnipeg Jets during training camp at MTS Iceplex on Thursday morning.

Wheeler, as he sometimes does, offered a bit of reality check, mixed with some of his signature sass.

“Let’s play a few games,” he joked, noting that it had only been an on-ice session with the team, “because ‘on paper’ means s —. ”

The captain continued: “It doesn’t mean anything. The best team on paper isn’t the team that (usually) wins.”

Wheeler is not wrong in his assessment; Still, there are plenty of reasons for optimism in those areas, even with COVID-19 hovering again over another NHL season. The Jets did as their fans told them, tackling what for years had been a leaky defense as they traded for veterans Brenden Dillon and Nate Schmidt. They lost Mason Appleton in the Seattle expansion draft, but eased his outing by signing forwards Andrew Copp and Paul Stastny to one-year deals.

“It doesn’t mean anything. The best team on paper isn’t the one that (usually) wins.”
– Winnipeg Jets captain Blake Wheeler

Add it all up and the expectation is that a busy offseason should pay off once the puck drops next month in the 2021-22 NHL campaign. While it is made for breathtaking expert screenings and entertaining player sound bites, what the Jets have been able to do over the past couple of months has also created a feeling unique to this training camp compared to those of the past year.

With the beginning of the narrative of this team which no longer focuses on the gaps in the roster, the recalcitrant contracts or, as we saw in the fall of 2019, with the strange exit of defender Dustin Byfuglien, this season. lacks a lot of drama. And while only time will tell how effective this Jets roster is, there is an advantage to simply being lacking in question marks heading into a grueling 82-game season.


Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice at MTS Iceplex.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice at MTS Iceplex.

“Yes, if you take advantage of it,” Jets head coach Paul Maurice said, adding that there was also the benefit of relaxing COVID-19 health protocols compared to last season. “It’s different, and I’ve said it before, but the good thing about it is that I have a better appreciation for hockey – the NHL and the fans – than ever before. And I’m really excited about this training camp. It’s a day, don’t blow your tires in the driveway, but it’s exciting.

The absence of distractions is always a good thing, especially in a year when the potential for disruption could be at an all time high. For example, the biggest problem for some NHL teams right now is getting all players fully vaccinated.

“I’m really excited about this training camp. It’s a day, don’t blow your tires in the driveway, but it’s exciting.”
– Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice

Unlike some clubs in the league who have had to either release players, juggle their rosters, or live with the fact that some skaters will potentially be in and out of the roster depending on geography – unvaccinated players will not be able to cross. Canada-US border – Jets are fully vaccinated. There are other clubs, including Detroit, Edmonton and Pittsburgh, that still haven’t hit the 100 percent mark.

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly has estimated that there will be around 10 to 15 players in total unvaccinated by the start of the regular season on October 12.

“All distractions are opportunities for an advantage or disadvantage for you or an opponent,” said Maurice. “That’s what we don’t have to face, luckily. Whatever happens on the horizon, we will have to face it. But it won’t be (the vaccines) and that’s fine.”


Winnipeg Jets forward Pierre-Luc Dubois at MTS Iceplex Thursday morning.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Winnipeg Jets forward Pierre-Luc Dubois at MTS Iceplex Thursday morning.

There was a palpable sense of relief among the players this season, while not quite normal, will be very different from last year. There will still be mandatory health protocols, but vaccinated players will no longer be confined to their homes or hotels on the road. During their stay at the hotel, players will now be able to visit bars, restaurants, gymnasiums or the swimming pool and can do so in the company of their teammates.

Teams can also suspend unvaccinated players if they are not available to attend club activities, meaning players who cannot cross a country’s border due to their health restrictions will not be paid. Losing wages rarely suit anyone, let alone highly paid professional athletes.

“Just being able to get out on the road is going to help a lot. Being in your hotel room from three o’clock to bedtime (that was difficult). ”
– Winnipeg Jets forward Pierre-Luc Dubois

Jets forward Pierre-Luc Dubois agreed that having a fully vaccinated squad is a clear advantage and he’s impressed with how his teammates handled the pressure to get vaccinated. He’s also a big fan of the relaxed health restrictions, especially after being quarantined for two weeks last season following his trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

“Just being able to get out on the road is going to help a lot. Being in your hotel room from three o’clock to bedtime (that was difficult),” he said. “Last year one of the tough parts was coming on a new team and you can’t have team dinners and you can’t go out with guys, you can’t go to guys for dinner. and that’s a big part of team building and a big part of winning. The winning teams are the closest teams to each other. This year, being able to get back to a more normal life than we are used to , that will definitely help. ”


Blake Wheeler: "There is no guarantee here.  I think we found out last year.  We take these things day by day."

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Blake Wheeler: “There are no guarantees here. I think we learned that last year. We take these things day to day.”

Wheeler is keenly aware that the issues that can arise over the course of a season, whether it’s health protocols or game-by-game success, are fluid and can often evolve over time. This is why he often takes a more measured approach. But he also feels optimistic about the work that has been done and will continue over the next three weeks of training camp, which should allow for a promising year to come.

“There’s no guarantee here. I think we learned that last year. We take these things day to day,” Wheeler said. “I hope we can continue on the trajectory where we can, I don’t even know if normal is the right word, but I have a less chaotic year and I worry about playing hockey and playing in front of people, and sort of come back to what makes it an exciting thing to do for a living. ”

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twitter: @jeffkhamilton

Jeff Hamilton

Jeff Hamilton
Multimedia producer

After a series of injuries while playing hockey, including fractures to the wrist, arm and collarbone; a tear in the medial collateral ligament of both knees; in addition to a collapsed lung, Jeff thought it was a good idea to show his interest in sports off the ice and in the classroom.

Read the full biography


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