Blake Wheeler, Kevin Cheveldayoff, Paul Maurice, Rick Bowness, Winnipeg Jets

Jets’ Wheeler Buyout the Right Decision for Franchise

The Blake Wheeler buyout is not a sad development, but rather the right decision to move the franchise forward.

Wheeler Bought Out At Eleventh Hour

It took GM Kevin Cheveldayoff until the eleventh hour, but he finally pulled the trigger. On June 30, the final day to buy out players, he did just that, buying out the 37-year-old former captain from the final year of his five-year contract that carried an $8.25 million AAV. This ended weeks of speculation either a buyout or a trade was imminent, and came a few days after Cheveldayoff said at the 2023 NHL Draft in Nashville a buyout was one of the options being explored.

Given Cheveldayoff has resisted a rebuild — even after the second-half collapse and yet another early playoff exit — the move makes sense. The organization believes they’ll contend in 2023-24 and freeing up more cap space for the retooling — retooling which got underway when Pierre-Luc Dubois was traded to the Los Angeles Kings Tuesday — will give the GM additional freedom during free agency. Cheveldayoff has a number of restricted and unrestricted free agents to re-sign, including Rasmus Kupari and Gabriel Vilardi, two pieces received from the Kings in exchange for Dubois.

The buyout will give Cheveldayoff an extra $5.5 million to work with this offseason. The Jets have to pay Wheeler two-thirds of his remaining salary over two years, so they owe him $2.75 million in 2023-24 but then owe him $2.75 million in 2024-25, when his contract would have been off the books if he’d played the final season.

Wheeler, the last remaining Jet to have played for the Atlanta Thrashers, is now a UFA who is free to sign with any team.

Wheeler’s Influence Needed To Go

Removing Wheeler completely was the only way a changing of the guard was ever going to happen.

Last September, then-brand-new head coach Rick Bowness stripped Wheeler of the captaincy he’d held since 2016. It was a gutsy move, serving not only as not only an indictment of Wheeler’s inability to establish a winning culture during his time as captain, but also a clear signal to every Jet the status quo that led to continual disappointment in 2021-22 was no longer acceptable.

Blake Wheeler Winnipeg Jets
Blake Wheeler was stripped of the captaincy before the season, ultimately his last with the Jets, began. The team still treated him as the leader anyway. (Photo by Jonathan Kozub/NHLI via Getty Images)

Wheeler, to his credit, responded diplomatically in the immediate aftermath and had a decent season. He recorded 55 points in 72 games, but faded down the stretch and was one of the players to call Bowness out when Bowness said he was “disappointed and disgusted” by the team’s elimination Game 5 performance in the first round of the playoffs against the Vegas Golden Knights.

Related: Jets’ 2022-23 Report Cards: Blake Wheeler

In the exit interviews, it was clear the “changing of the guard” Bowness attempted didn’t really work. In bombshell comments that didn’t get enough press, many players said they still viewed Wheeler as the captain anyway.

This revelation was interesting since Wheeler was never a particularly effective leader or suited, personality-wise, to wear the C. It’s unknown if he tried to undermine the new leadership group or to hang onto his outsized voice in any way, but it’s worth noting that even if he didn’t do anything like that, he was still widely regarded as the boss.

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That makes it clear the only way to remove his influence and allow alternates Adam Lowry and Josh Morrissey (and whoever replaces the likely-to-depart Mark Scheifele as the third alternate) to truly lead in their own way was to remove Wheeler completely.

Talks of either a buyout or trade — which this author wrote in May would be the best route for just this reason — accelerated after Twitter personality Steve “Dangle” Glynn tweeted insider knowledge of the situation, followed by Jeff Market and Elliotte Friedman speaking about the topic on the 32 Thoughts Podcast.

Wheeler Leaves Mixed Legacy

Wheeler was an elite playmaker for a long time and deserves credit for his contributions to the Jets’ organization. He owns the Thrashers/Jets franchise records in games played, assists, and points. He stayed in his prime older than most, recording back-to-back 91-point seasons in his 30s. He was tough as nails and wanted to play through anything. He was always willing to get out in the community. He rose to a lot of moments.

It wasn’t all roses, though. The Jets didn’t accomplish a lot as a team during his tenure, making the playoffs six times but only winning only three playoff series. His ultra-serious personality alienated some of his teammates and he, along with Scheifele, were reported to be the reason Patrik Laine wanted out of town. The Jets not only lost a generational sniper, but also now lost the player they got for him by trading Dubois.

Blake Wheeler Winnipeg Jets
Wheeler leaves a decidedly mixed legacy in his 12 years with the Jets and six seasons as captain. (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

His coziness with Paul Maurice — and the former head coach’s unwillingness to hold him accountable for poor play in 2019 and 2020 or to take him off the top six when it was clear he could no longer keep up there — reeked of favouritism. He contributed to — and was not able to correct — a fractured locker room and systemic cultural issues that have held the team back since 2019. This isn’t his fault, but his hefty 2018 contract extension — which gave him term until age 38 — became an albatross when Father Time caught up and he became a defensive liability.

Related: Jets Should Not Be Satisfied With Season; Big Changes Required

The Jets should have done more in Wheeler’s tenure, full stop. The fact they didn’t, even when considered a Stanley Cup contender, falls partially on his shoulders. He acknowledged this in his own emotional exit interview, where expressed disappointment more glory eluded them.

“I’ve dedicated my career to this place because I believe that we had the pieces to win,” he said. “It’s disappointing to know that that didn’t come to fruition… I gave it everything I had, you know what I mean? I hope that that’s good enough… there wasn’t a day I took off, so I guess that’s the best you can do.”

Whether the negatives outweigh the positives is yours to decide. This author’s not certain there will ever be a consensus. While recency bias accentuates the negatives, it’s almost certain Wheeler will have his number hoisted to the rafters of Canada Life Centre one day.

It’s also certain that Wheeler’s tenure with the Jets had to end.

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