Blake Wheeler deserves better

The Winnipeg Jets captain has been an elite scorer for the past decade and has outplayed the value of his contracts over that period of time.

At the moment, Jets fandom is ablaze with differing opinions on the value of resident captain, Blake Wheeler. Declining production and ascending age and wage are the key elements of the discussion. As the captain approaches his 1,000th NHL game (expected to be December 5th against the Leafs), I propose we take a moment to recall just how impactful he has been as a Jet over the past decade.

As I mentioned on a recent episode of the Airport Lounge podcast, the current deployment of Wheeler by head coach Paul Maurice is not only placing the Jets in a less than optimal competitive position in the immediate term, it is working to undermine to overall legacy of Blake Wheeler as a Winnipeg Jet.

None of the following is intended to suggest the current echo chamber of angst about Wheeler is anything less than completely justified and legitimate. Zero goals and seven assists in 17 games is cause enough for concern, especially for someone playing 20 minutes a night on the top line. However, my concern in this article is to look at his legacy through the lens of his production over time, and what we have paid for that production, to place into context his broad contribution to the Jets over the past decade (which is a really, really long time in sports years).

Since the 2012/13 season, Blake Wheeler ranks 7th among all NHL forwards in point production. Not bad at all. His 623 points in 674 regular season games places him just ahead of Nicklas Backstrom and Connot McDavid (note: who has only played in 7 of those 10 years), and just behind John Tavares and Claude Giroux. When you factor in that this group also includes Patrick Kane, Sydney Crosby, and Alex Ovechkin, you see this is truly elite company.

When we factor in labour costs, err, I mean salary, we see that over the course of this timeframe, the salary paid to Blake Wheeler make this all a very good deal for Winnipeg. The timeframe of the past decade includes parts of three contracts for Wheeler. His AAV was $2.6-million in 2012/13, then $5.6 million between 2013/14 and 2018/19, and then $8.3-million since. That totals $60.9-million over that timeframe, or an average AAV of $6.1-million.

When comparing these figures to the other players in the top 10 of scoring, we see that it compares very well, and it is reasonable to argue that Wheeler has outperformed the totality of his contracts. In terms of cost, this 10-year AAV for Wheeler ranks 9th highest among the top 10 scorers. Only Brand Marchand had a lower 10-year AAV at $5.1-million. The highest was Ovechkin at $9.5-million, followed by Kane at $9.2-million. The next highest after Wheeler`s $6.1-million was Backstrom and Phil Kessel, who both averaged $7.2-million over that timeframe.

I have often thought that simply comparing the AAV in a particular year to the point production in the same year doesn`t really capture the reality of impact over time. Especially for a player like Wheeler who has spent all or majority of that time with the same team. There will always be a mis-match between these two factors simply because we cannot predict the future. I don`t think it is necessarily wrong or inefficient for the market to include in subsequent contracts an element of “backpay” for past “over-performance”. I think this is a reasonable way to look at Wheeler’s contracts to this point.

Which brings us to the point of the article: the longer the current situation with Wheeler remains as is, the more and more Jets fans will begin to sour on el capitán. Currently, the fan base is split, with a good portion supporting Wheeler under firm belief that he remains an integral part of whatever success we will have, while largely ignoring or denigrating the metrics which suggest his decline is present, ongoing, and likely not reversible. I expect this group to grow as the season progresses, assuming Wheeler’s production remains as it is likely to.

Where we go from here is predominantly up to two people – Blake Wheeler and Paul Maurice. Blake Wheeler’s legacy with the Winnipeg Jets should be without caveat or sullied by the mis-use by antediluvian head coach. We, as Winnipeggers, can have nice things, despite what anyone from Toronto tells you. And Blake Wheeler has been a fantastic Jet for the vast majority of the past decade (which, again, is a really, really long time in sports).

As such, more needs to be done to preserve this legacy. Specifically, Blake Wheeler needs to be put in different and better situations in order for him to succeed now and going forward. What is clear is that what is currently being done isn’t that. So, Paul Maurice, if you truly care about your captain, start showing it by putting him in better situations, such as reducing his ice time (slightly), playing him with players that can compliment his current style (e.g. Adam Lowry and Paul Stastny), and keep him on PP1. He deserves nothing less.

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