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Evaluating Blake Wheeler’s First Season as Captain

On the cusp of another season without a playoff berth, Jets fans are left wondering who to direct their pitchforks towards once again. Since there doesn’t seem to be one single problem with this club’s struggles, some have questioned Blake Wheeler‘s veteran presence during this dismal season.

Is there any merit to criticizing Blake Wheeler’s captaincy?

The numbers

Wheeler is undeniably one of the most underrated players in the NHL.

Only a handful of skaters have been able to replicate what he brings to the table. But despite his success, he has never played in an All-Star game (he declined an offer once) and is rarely labeled elite by experts. Even in Winnipeg, Wheeler never seems to get the credit he deserves.

Only 12 players in the entire NHL have accumulated more points than Wheeler over the past three seasons. In that same time span, Wheeler’s RelTM Corsi% is seventh best of all NHL skaters with at least 2,000 minutes played. He has an incredibly strong 200-foot game, with sizable point production to compliment it.

While the prestigious requirements of being an “elite” player can oftentimes be disputed, Wheeler’s efforts puts himself in the conversation, at the very least.

His performance on the PK hasn’t necessarily been stellar, but I’d argue that the passive box the Jets run eliminates his strongest shorthanded strength–speed. All signs point to the Jets feeble penalty kill being tied down by systematic issues anyway. Look no further than Shawn Matthias who had superb PK numbers until joining the Jets this year and subsequently slipping into mediocrity. Matthias was the 14th best shot conceding penalty killer from 2014-2016, only to drop down to 216th in 2016-17. The Jets shorthanded game is incredibly stagnant, which gives the league’s PP wizards all sorts of time. Giving PP specialists the luxury of having time is pretty much asking to get feasted on, and as any Jet fan will wretchedly tell you, they have.

Various models compiled by hockey statisticians are huge fans of Wheeler as well, the most notable being DTM About Heart’s WAR (Wins Above Replacement) model. He was placed 10th on the last update of DTM’s Overall Value chart.

It’s hard to find any statistical measure that isn’t fond of Wheeler.

But, is he a good leader?

Though I’m a firm believer that leadership in sports is formed organically and that the “C” is purely ceremonial, we have no reason to believe that Wheeler is a bad captain. From what we’ve seen, he’s willing to stand by his teammates when times are tough (which is fairly often for the Jets). Whether it’s the popular photograph of Blake hugging rookie Patrik Laine after his own goal, or the snarky responses he gives when reporters put his team down, Wheeler has demonstrated time and time again that he’s a guy who cares about being a Winnipeg Jet.

When Mathieu Perreault had a negative reaction to Jacob Trouba‘s hold out, Wheeler instead stuck up for his young teammate, claiming there were “no hard feelings” and welcomed him back with a hug (hugging seems to be Wheeler’s specialty).

Furthermore, captains are expected to have some sort of a “warrior personality”. Although blocked shots aren’t necessarily an important stat (why be rewarded for allowing shots against?), Wheeler has blocked the most shots of all Jets forwards this season. What’s particularly impressive about this is that at the same time, he allows the least amount of shots against at 5 on 5 per minute on the team. He checks off in both the “warrior” and “skill” categories.

Gary Lawless of TSN 1290 recently noted that he wasn’t willing to give guys like Wheeler a free pass on the team’s failures. He has concerns that the veterans may never say “hey, we’re gonna be better, and we’re gonna make everyone around us better”. While I don’t disagree that some veterans need to be held accountable, I respectfully disagree with Wheeler’s inclusion in this crowd.

In fact, Wheeler does make everyone around him better. Perreault, Mark Scheifele, Bryan Little, Nikolaj Ehlers, Nic Petan, Kyle Connor, and Marko Dano have all had their best shot differential statistics when playing on Wheeler’s line this season as Wheeler has been an absolute monster at driving play under Paul Maurice’s system. Simply put, when Wheeler is not on the ice, the Jets fail to generate shots. The team as a whole are currently ranked seventh worst in the league at generating shot attempts.

Besides, what better way is there to lead than by example? Wheeler’s play truly speaks for itself. There’s only so many positive things we can expect him to do. I do not believe that making the players he isn’t on the ice with better is one of them.

The verdict

As per usual, Wheeler has performed at an incredibly impressive clip this season. And although he is the captain on what TSN’s Travis Yost recently called “this season’s biggest disappointment“, nothing suggests that he is even remotely accountable for this. The problem with this team lies elsewhere. Goaltending has been sub-par, the penalty kill has been atrocious, and so has the shot generation when Wheeler’s not on the ice.

To put it in its simplest terms, Wheeler is just a really good player on a really bad team. Even Wayne Gretzky couldn’t muster up a championship in Los Angeles while his ex-Oilers teammates went on to win one more without him. Supporting casts in the NHL are irrefutably crucial.

So blame it on the coach, blame it on management for the lack of depth, or maybe both. But if the best player of all time couldn’t make the people he wasn’t on the ice with better, don’t expect Wheeler to.

 

Stats courtesy of stats.hockeyanalysis.com and corsica.hockey.