The Winnipeg Jets will be without forward and team captain Blake Wheeler for a minimum of five games. After taking a heavy elbow to the side of his face from Ottawa Senators’ forward Brady Tkachuk on Monday evening, Wheeler remained in the game but later developed symptoms consistent of that of a concussion.
Although official diagnosis had not yet come back, Jets’ head coach Paul Maurice spoke with the local media on Wednesday, following Winnipeg’s skate before the team headed out east for a five-game road trip.
“So, Blake’s not making the trip with us,” Maurice said on Wednesday. “He took the elbow last game, was fine, felt good, but started to feel a little off and then started not feeling great. The word is concussion but we don’t have a diagnosis on that, yet. But we’re going to treat it as it is because we’re obviously really careful with these things.”
Brady Tkachuk took another penalty for an elbow on Blake Wheeler. A rare undisciplined game for him.
— Brandon Maki (@BrandonMaki_) April 6, 2021
He clarified his comments following Thursday’s victory over the Montreal Canadiens, as further diagnosis did show the captain had sustained a concussion.
“Yes, so he’s been diagnosed with a concussion. So he’s in the protocol now,” Maurice said post-game. “So, you have a bunch of people step up in Blake’s absence and perform well, and it wouldn’t necessarily be the guys that you might think. Clearly, Connor (Hellebuyck‘s) been so good for us since he’s been here but we’ve got some really good additions to our team that have put us in a stronger position to weather certain injuries.”
Unfortunately for the Jets, with their captain not on the team flight that headed eastbound following the skate at Bell MTS Place, it means he will most likely miss the entirety of the five-game set, unless they plan to send him on a private charter from Winnipeg once cleared. The NHL’s current COVID-19 protocols prohibits players from travelling on commercial flights without a full quarantine, so the captain appears to be headed for a five-game absence.
But despite opening the team’s penultimate road trip without Wheeler, the club worked together and provided leadership by committee as the game wore on.
Scoring the opening goal just 18 seconds into the battle with Montreal, Winnipeg then gave up a goal of its own just 1:22 later. But in rebounding with two more strikes before the end of the first period, the Jets held on for a narrow 4-2 victory, opening the road trip on the right note with four games left to play.
“I don’t know if there’s been a game I’ve played for the Jets that he wasn’t in the lineup,” said Josh Morrissey after scoring the game’s opening goal Thursday evening. “I’d have to check back on that. But over the last five years, I don’t think so. So for me it was maybe a new experience, too, just not having him there. But he’s obviously the leader of our team and he does so many great things and obviously his play, what he does for us on the ice, guys have to step up in all areas of his absence because it’s a big hole to fill.”
Interestingly, the last game that Wheeler missed was in April of 2018 in preparation for the team’s long playoff run through to the Western Conference Final. Also sitting out that game for the sake of rest, was Morrissey.
“He’s got so many games of experience in this league and he’s been a captain in this league now for a number of years,” Morrissey added further on Wheeler. “Just the way he plays, he’s been a leader his whole life, so when you don’t have him there, a veteran guy who has a real feel for the game, I think that you get over time but he has it naturally. Yeah I’d say he’s a calming force in those moments.”
Dating back 10 years, Wheeler has just missed five total games to injury, which would be doubled should he miss this entire road trip which began on Thursday. Currently boasting 10 goals and 32 points in 39 games this season, Wheeler’s offence will certainly be missed.
With the big 6-foot-5 winger out of action, the Jets reshuffled their forwards groups, with long-serving scratch Jansen Harkins finally drawing back into the lineup. He skated alongside Nate Thompson and Trevor Lewis on the team’s new-look fourth line on Thursday, while Mathieu Perreault moved up to skate with Adam Lowry and Mason Appleton. And as as matter of fact, both lines contributed on the score sheet.
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“Harks brings a lot of speed, pretty familiar playing with him from before at the start of camp and stuff. I thought he was good,” Lewis said post-game. “On the goal, Neal made a good play on the breakout getting open and I just had some speed driving the net and he made an awesome pass, got a piece of it and it went in… I think our line keeps it pretty simple out there. We drive the net, cause some chaos that way. Whether he shot it or made that unbelievable pass, I think I was going in the net anyway. It was a great pass and I was lucky to get a piece of it and a big goal for us there.”
But veering away from the accolades, Lewis – a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Los Angeles Kings – also spoke of the importance of Blake Wheeler to the Winnipeg Jets and his team’s ability to fight back in his absence.
“It’s always tough playing without your best players,” he said.
“Obviously, Wheels is a huge part of this team and we miss him, but I thought we came out early and played well, put a couple in there and they had some push-back there, but I thought we weathered the storm pretty good. Bucky (something) in the net was huge.”