NASHVILLE — The captain is on the verge of a comeback.

NASHVILLE — The captain is on the verge of a comeback.

Blake Wheeler went through a marathon skate here Wednesday, at one point literally bringing himself to his knees as he tried to catch his breath following a lengthy series of sprints, turns and hard cuts designed to test out his rehabilitated knee.

Long after the majority of his Winnipeg Jets teammates had left the ice following an optional practice, the 35-year-old forward was putting in extra work.

Whether that return comes Thursday night against the Nashville Predators or, perhaps, this weekend in either Boston or Pittsburgh remains to be seen. But there’s no doubt the heart and soul of the hockey team is getting close.

"I feel really good. I’m not exactly sure on the timeline. There’s certain things, boxes I need to check off before I can get into a game. Getting into a full practice, taking some contact," Wheeler said in a wide-ranging chat at Bridgestone Arena. "Hopefully, sooner than later. Want to see how these practices continue to go and how I respond."

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p>
Jets captain Blake Wheeler practised for the first time in more than a month Monday.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Jets captain Blake Wheeler practised for the first time in more than a month Monday.

Once he does get back in the lineup, the veteran winger hopes to pick up where he left off. Which, you may recall, was in the middle of the best game of his season before he went down in a crumpled heap on Dec. 10 in the third period of his team’s game in Vancouver.

Wheeler, who celebrated playing in his 1,000th regular-season game only five nights earlier, had finally scored his first goal of the campaign and added a pair of assists before an awkward collision left him writhing in pain. His line with Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor was dominating. Only to have it disappear in the blink of an eye.

"Yeah, I saw it coming. It was one of those things where I wasn’t surprised. I was going for a loose puck in front of our net, I saw bodies coming at me fast and I just couldn’t get out of the way fast enough. So, (I) knew it wasn’t gonna be good," said Wheeler.

"I’ve been so lucky over the course of my career, with a clean bill of health for the most part. I guess I just look back on that and feel lucky I’ve gone this long without anything super serious. Even that particular injury, initially I thought it was going to be one of those where it was much more severe than it ended up being. Once again, just counting my blessings for sure."

“I’ve been so lucky over the course of my career, with a clean bill of health for the most part." – Blake Wheeler

Wheeler has missed eight games so far — Winnipeg is 4-3-1 in that span — but would have been sidelined for a ton more if not for COVID-19 hitting NHL rosters and communities hard, resulting in nine postponed Jets games between then and now which have been re-scheduled for later in the year.

"I kind of had a big chunk of games earmarked that I was going to be out for. I guess the timing for it was good in that sense," said Wheeler.

The emotional high of his milestone game, followed by the incredible low of a serious injury, was then followed by myriad emotions when Paul Maurice departed the organization Dec. 17.

<p>MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p>
Former Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice during his last media call after announcing his resignation. Wheeler has openly discussed the relationship he’s had over the years with Maurice, a coach he said he’d “go through a wall for” in the past.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Former Winnipeg Jets head coach Paul Maurice during his last media call after announcing his resignation. Wheeler has openly discussed the relationship he’s had over the years with Maurice, a coach he said he’d “go through a wall for” in the past.

"Certainly very disappointed in what happened. Shocking," said Wheeler.

"It was a tough time I think for the whole team. We were stunned for a while. Typically when you have a coaching change it’s for reasons that, you know, the guys end up being excited about it. It kind of kick-starts the team a little bit, there’s a little jump in everyone’s step. I think this one kind of took us a couple of days to process. But it’s one of those things. Life goes on, and you have to adjust and adjust on the fly. And I think the guys have done a great job of grasping that and moving forward."

Wheeler has openly discussed the relationship he’s had over the years with Maurice, a coach he said he’d "go through a wall for" in the past.

"Paul is an honest man, he’s a good man. He’s a guy that everyone that has ever played for him, you respect him. The way he carries himself and the way he carries himself in the room, how he treats guys, I think that was for me the biggest thing that stood out. I didn’t feel like I was just a pawn on the chess board. I felt like I was cared about," said Wheeler.

“He’s (Paul Maurice) somebody that I’ll forever be grateful for my time with him and just look back on it with a lot of great memories." – Blake Wheeler

"He’s somebody that I’ll forever be grateful for my time with him and just look back on it with a lot of great memories. Unfortunately, we didn’t accomplish the ultimate goals we had set for our team together, but from the time Paul came in until today, I think we can all agree the Winnipeg Jets are quite a bit different than eight years ago. That’s a testament to Paul Maurice and his leadership."

<p>MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p>
Now, it’s Dave Lowry behind the bench, and where exactly Wheeler slots in remains to be seen.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Now, it’s Dave Lowry behind the bench, and where exactly Wheeler slots in remains to be seen.

Now, it’s Dave Lowry behind the bench, and where exactly Wheeler slots in remains to be seen. Nikolaj Ehlers went down with what looks to be a significant injury in Tuesday’s 4-3 overtime loss in Washington following a knee-on-knee hit from Capitals defenceman Dmitry Orlov, so that certainly opens up an immediate spot. Scheifele has been playing on a line with Ehlers and Andrew Copp, while Connor is now part of a trio with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cole Perfetti.

"When Blake is ready to play, there’s probably a very good chance that he’s going to slot back into the top-six. (Unfortunately) for Wheels, he got hurt the night that he was having his best game and I know that he’s excited to get back," Lowry said Wednesday. "We’re excited to have him on the ice with our group. Anytime you can add your captain back into the mix, your guys get excited. The thing for us is that he’s a world-class player and when he comes in, he’ll play where we feel he has the best opportunity to get his feet wet again."

Wheeler was quick to praise the fresh face behind the bench and said he’s willing to take on whatever role Lowry sees fit, with the ultimate goal of getting the team to the promised land.

Wheeler was quick to praise the fresh face behind the bench and said he’s willing to take on whatever role Lowry sees fit, with the ultimate goal of getting the team to the promised land.

"He’s been around the league a long time, a guy that has played over 1,000 games in the NHL. He’s been behind multiple benches. His experience, the way he played the game too can be an asset for our team. He was a guy that played the game the right way, played hard. All the little things we’re trying to instil in our team to take us to that next level are things he brought to the table as a player," said Wheeler.

"Just excited about continuing to build on it and build within our team. I thought we had a lot of guys playing well, and we still have a lot of guys playing well, so now it’s about fitting back into the lineup whenever that happens and trying to maximize whatever role I’m put in."

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @mikemcintyrewpg

Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.