Feb 20, 2015
Trio of Wheeler, Little and Ladd key to success
When the Jets opened up shop in Winnipeg on October 9, 2011 against the Montreal Canadiens, and the starting line for the opening game was Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler, one got the idea the three were put together for a reason. Since that day, there have been stretches where the line has been broken up, but one way or another they seem to find their way back together. Jets play-by-play man Dennis Beyak has more.
By Dennis Beyak
Play-By-Play Announcer, Hockey on TSN
When the Jets opened up shop in Winnipeg on October 9, 2011 against the Montreal Canadiens, and the starting line for the opening game was Andrew Ladd, Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler, one got the idea the three were put together for a reason. Since that day, there have been stretches where the line has been broken up, but one way or another they seem to find their way back together. When Wheeler joined the organization in the trade with Boston, the team’s first game was in Edmonton, he played with Ladd and Little.
Since the Jets opener there have been times they were split up with Little even playing wing for a short stretch. When Paul Maurice arrived, Michael Frolik moved into Wheeler’s spot, and that’s the way this season started, while Wheeler was with Mark Scheifele and Evander Kane. That changed with the Kane injury in game one.
Down 3-0 versus the Wild, Maurice made the switch. But it really didn’t have anything to do with that particular game. On November 18, the Jets were starting a three-game home stand, a stretch where six of the next nine were at home where the Jets had the last line change. Maurice wanted his reliable trio to play against other teams top lines. As good as they were defensively, the threesome has never lost their offensive touch. They currently lead the team in scoring and plus-minus.
Asked if he considers them a defensive or an offensive line, Maurice’s response was “absolutely both. They have to be both.”
The trio very much understand their role, and have a real good understanding of the matchups the coach is looking for. Coming off a season in which the line felt it had to score, and as a result, gave up nearly as many chances as they got, the message from Maurice in November was “you will play versus the top lines – (but you need to) be even or better.” And this year, it has been a unit that has led the way in the team’s defense first system.
“What they do is lead by example,” Maurice said. “Their shift length is perfect, they do drills at practice like it’s a game. We want the other lines to see that. That’s the model of what we want our team to look like – speed, hands, grit. They don’t cheat the game and it’s good for our team to see our top three offensive guys doing it right.”
So then why the change in a game versus Detroit?
Drew Stafford had been acquired from Buffalo and Wheeler and Stafford changed spots on the right side with the Jets down 3-1. Before you could question the move, Wheeler scored. It was off a great rush by Tyler Myers -- the other newcomer -- and sparked a come-from-behind, shootout win.
The seed had been planted the game before in Nashville. The Predators, with the last change, played the Paul Gaustad checking line and Norris Trophy candidate Shea Weber against the Little line. One unit could check the Jets top three offensive players, and the Red Wings were doing the same.
“So we split them – gave us some options,” commented Maurice. “It changes the way we look. We’ll move them around depending on who we play and how the match ups go. When they are together it’s easy to find all three.”
Back home against Edmonton, but with two road games to follow the home single, Stafford stayed with Ladd and Little, while Wheeler was with Scheifele and Matthieu Perreault. But after an injury to Perreault early in the game, and Little, Ladd and Wheeler were re-united. And down by a goal with time running out in the third, on cue the tying goal: Ladd from Wheeler and Little.
They started Thursday’s game versus Washington as a unit, but after falling behind, the change was made. Again to get away from an opponent’s checking unit.
Against the Caps, penalties did the Jets in. The team has taken a lot of penalties all season, the difference now is they are not killing them. The penalty kill has been just over 60 percent since the all-star break and as Maurice put it after his team took five tripping penalties against the Caps, and gave up three power play goals against (now nine in four games), “it’s every aspect of the PK. From face-offs to blocks, to energy, to quick reads to good sticks to saves, it’s all missing.”
Paul Maurice was asked about the closeness of the room, something that has been a huge benefit as the team battles through adversity, whether it be injuries, bad bounces, too many penalties or a tough schedule. Players and the coach were asked about the team’s brotherhood and each praised the other, but as we have heard a number of times this season, “what happens in the room, stays in the room.”
“There are things we did,” Maurice said. “We work on it daily, how we handle each other in the room. We rely on our leadership and I’m not going to tell you anything more.”
“It’s nice to be a franchise leader, even if it is penalty minutes.” Said Chris Thorburn who passed Eric Boulton in that category. “He’s a good teammate and a good friend. We had a text conversation after the game,” commented Thorburn.
Thorburn will be the first to say “there’s some stupid penalties in there,”, but there’s also a lot of hard earned, team-related ones. And his work does not go unnoticed by Maurice.
“He’s part of that fabric of the team. He’s a talker, has a friendship with just about everybody in the room. And he’ll do what has to be done for his teammates. His personality in the room is really important, and he understands in role.”
Thorburn is also having his best goal scoring season since the move to Winnipeg.
“We’ve been through tough times and good times together,” added Jim Slater. “He does all the things you want from a teammate.”
The injury that will keep Perreault out the rest of the regular schedule will again test Winnipeg. The luxury of a Dustin Byfuglien comes into play as he may see some shifts up front -- he played both positions in Washington. Toby Enstrom will move into Perreault’s spot on the power play, but the Jets will miss Perreaults’s vision, playmaking ability, and offence. Perreault was well on his way to career numbers, already tying his career high for goals.