When you think of Blake Wheeler, if you think of Blake Wheeler (and we won’t comment if you do), you probably think of an all-conquering, clear-the-track power forward who goes wherever he wants and constantly opens up space for his linemates. And that’s not exactly wrong, because Wheeler can be that when he wants.
He can also be Adam Oates.
Wheeler led the league in assists last year, with 68, tied with Claude Giroux. For comparison’s sake, Patrick Kane–perhaps the preeminent playmaking winger of his time–has a career high of 60 assists in a season. Wheeler’s and Giroux’s 68 assists last campaign were the most by a winger since Jaromir Jagr put up 69 (shut up) in the year coming out of the lockout. Martin St. Louis also managed to put up 68 assists in ’10-’11, but Jagr is the only other winger you’ll find in the stratosphere of that total of helpers. In the interest of fairness, Wheeler spent a chunk of last season at center when Mark Scheifele was out with injury.
This year, Wheeler is on pace to do even better, and so far it’s all been from the wing. He has 33 assists in 30 games, which would put him on pace for 90 assists on the year. No winger has bettered 83 (go ahead) in the past 20 seasons, which of course was again Jagr.
Making it stranger still is that Wheeler is only on pace for 13 goals. Only Henrik Sedin has ended up with less goals while totaling up more than 65 assists, with 10. Adam Oates is also, fittingly, on this list as he managed 13 goals in 2000-2001 while collecting 69 (still shut up) assists. This kind of disparity isn’t seen much, especially for a player as capable of scoring as Wheeler is.
It gets even more odd as you dig deeper. Wheeler totaled 34 assists on the power play last year, which led the league by four last year. This year, he’s already piled up 17 power play assists, which leads the league by two, and puts him at a rate to pile up 46 power play assists. Since the NHL began keeping track of power play points in ’97-’98, only Sidney Crosby has toppled that total, with 48 in ’06-’07. Guess it helps when you can just dish across to Patrik Laine at the other circle all the time.
Wheeler has company this year. Both Mitch Marner and Mikko Rantanen have more assists than him this year, and both are wingers. Rantanen is on pace for a simply unholy and ridiculous 103 assists this year, and probably then has to give a quarter of his paycheck to Nathan MacKinnon.
Either way, Wheeler has changed his game and you can’t argue when it results in points on the board. While some may deride the amount that has come on the power play, Wheeler led the pack in primary assists at all strengths last year, and he did so by seven of them. So whether it’s at evens or on the man-advantage, if you’re the guy setting up the goal, that’s what matters. This year both Rantanen and Marner are ahead of him in primary assists.
Still, it’s a little weird what’s happened to Wheeler’s game. He used to be a possession monster, with relative Corsi-percentages of +5.7 and +8.4 three and to years ago. Last year, when he started this Jason Kidd act, that dropped to the negative side, as he’s on this year as well. It doesn’t matter when you’re scoring as much as he is, or his line is, but it gives you the impression that there could be even more within Wheeler if he were so inclined. And certainly no one minded when he put together 18 assists in 17 playoff games last year.
Maybe this is just how Wheeler’s game has evolved. He is 32, so it’s likely his peak is probably behind him. While his size and speed would still indicate that he can crash and smash his way around the ice, that has less of a shelf-life than a vision-quest that he’s become. Wheeler’s ability to pick a pass won’t go away with time, and seeing as how Laine can’t even get a drink legally yet, he could be feeding him for five or six more years. Nikolaj Ehlers, his winger at even-strength, is barely any older. So that passing tree is going to be around a while, too.
Don’t fool yourself, Wheeler is still taking his shots. He’s averaging nearly three shots on goal per game this year, and he was over three last year. He’s seen a unsustainable drop in his shooting-percentage this year to 6.2%, but the more telling is that his rate of attempts and shots per 60 minutes has declined the past three seasons. Then again, that’s when Laine and Ehlers showed up, so…
Wheeler has a five-year extension kicking in next year at $8.2M per year. If he can continue to pile up 55+ assists a year, and with Laine there’s no reason to think he can’t, no one’s going to complain about him being 38 when the deal is up.
Which makes you wonder about certainly players who get derided as “pass-first.” (Sound familiar?) Sure, it would be nice if every player did everything. Some aren’t wired that way. But if you can shoot just enough to make people think about it, isn’t it better to accentuate what they do well? Wheeler became a great passer. So the Jets stuck Laine/Ehlers on the other wing. Seems to be working out well, huh?
Game #34 Preview Suite