Jets to enter season without captain, remove Wheeler from role
Forward Blake Wheeler was captain for the past six seasons since being named to the role Aug. 31, 2016. Center Mark Scheifele and defenseman Josh Morrissey were alternate captains last season, as was forward Paul Stastny, who signed with the Carolina Hurricanes on Aug. 23.
"There was some surprise, I think," Wheeler said. "Having the kind of year [the Jets had], the first conversation with the new coach (Rick Bowness) was surprising. But I've had time to let it sink in, so he gave me a little headway. I've had time to process it.
"There's nothing in my life that I've taken more pride in than [being captain], outside of being a husband and being a father. Every day since I was named captain, that's what has gotten me out of bed. How can I be a better teammate? How can I be a better leader? How can I be a better player on the ice for this city and for this team and for this organization? So yeah, at a certain point, that can wear thin on you. I'm just incredibly grateful that I've had this opportunity. That's how I feel."
Wheeler, who turned 36 on Aug. 31, is Winnipeg's longest-tenured player, having been with the team since its final season in Atlanta in 2010-11. In Jets/Thrashers history, he ranks first in points (757) and assists (511), and second in games (825) and goals (246).
Bowness was hired as Winnipeg coach July 3.
"We want the core group to grow a little bit, so it's not just one face coming out here talking to the media every day when things don't go well," Bowness said. "Blake is still going to lead. He is. Whether you have a 'C' or an 'A' or you don't, he's still going to lead us. I've been around the League in some capacity for 47 years, some of the best leaders I've coached never had a 'C,' never had an 'A.'
"What we're trying to do now is try to get more guys in that group to take that responsibility and be proud of it. … Blake is a key part of this team. He's going to be a key part going forward. It's, let's get more people involved. It's a different way of trying to get that to happen."
Wheeler, who had 60 points (17 goals, 43 assists) in 65 games last season, said the decision would not change the way he views his role with the team.
"I don't need a letter on my jersey," Wheeler said. "There was a time in my career where that validation was important to me. I don't need that anymore. I'm really looking forward to watching a lot of the guys I've had a privilege watching kind of grow up, step into sort of an expanded role. If you think that because of this I'm just going to fade into the back and not be a leader on this team, you're sorely mistaken.
"I don't envision it changing my role at all. I haven't had those conversations with Rick yet, but my plan is to contribute to a winning season. … I'm just looking forward to watching the guys I mentor step up, because it's their time now, and like I said, I'm not going anywhere. I'm still going to be doing the things that I would have done with the 'C' on my jersey."
Scheifele, who was speaking at the NHL North American Player Media Tour in Las Vegas, said the Jets will be different without Wheeler as captain.
"Obviously, it was a shock to me," Scheifele said Friday. "Blake Wheeler has been the captain of this team for so long. He's a guy we've all looked up to, we all model ourselves after. We all still look up to him. Obviously, it's going to be weird with him not actually having the 'C,' but I think it just gives the opportunity for more guys to step in and feel like they're able to talk.
"We have so many older guys, guys that have been around for a long time. It gives the opportunity for a guy like Kyle Connor or Nikolaj Ehlers or Adam Lowry to feel like we're doing this together. We're doing this as a team. It's not one guy, it's not two guys, it's not three guys. It's a whole team of leading, and we all have to be in it together. We all lean on each other, we all care for each other, we all support each other, and I think that's what we need."
The Jets (39-32-11) missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in five seasons, finishing eight points behind the Nashville Predators for the second wild card from the Western Conference last season. Paul Maurice resigned as coach Dec. 17 and was replaced by Dave Lowry, who was then replaced by Bowness.
"We have a bunch of really good guys that love hockey, that want to work on their game and want to get better, and we have a really good room, and I think we just kind of were lost last year," Scheifele said. "We almost were kind of in search of something. With the coach leaving and an interim guy coming in, we were kind of a little bit of a lost group last year."
Wheeler admitted the season facilitated trade discussions between him and the Jets. He has two seasons remaining on a five-year contract he signed Sept. 4, 2018.
"I think, yeah, when you have a down season, you're going to have to have those conversations," he said. "I've been here 11 years and … you'd be crazy not to look in the mirror at yourself, and then also look at an 11-year relationship and say, 'Is this still in our best interest going forward?' Ultimately, we made the determination that it is, so here I am. ... I'm here and I'm committed to this team and motivated to have a great season."
Winnipeg is one of seven NHL teams without a captain, joining the Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes, Buffalo Sabres, Calgary Flames, Philadelphia Flyers and Seattle Kraken.
"I just couldn't be more grateful that I had that opportunity (to be captain)," Wheeler said. "Never in my wildest dreams as a young player growing up, I never thought I would be in that fraternity of being a captain of an NHL team. So, like I said, it's what has given me so much joy and gotten me out of bed and given me a lot of drive for this organization and this city. I just look back and I'm just grateful that I've had that opportunity."
NHL.com staff writer Tom Gulitti and independent correspondent Darrin Bauming contributed to this report