WINNIPEG — Blake Wheeler is locked up to play for the Winnipeg Jets until he’s 37 years old.
That's not a daunting number for the team captain, whose five-year contract extension was announced Tuesday. The deal kicks in for the 2019-20 season and is worth US$41.25 million, with an average annual value of $8.25 million.
"With where I'm at in my career, with my age, I feel like my best years are ahead of me," Wheeler, 32, told the media after an informal skate with some of his teammates in Winnipeg.
"I wanted to give those years to this organization and hopefully push this team to the championship levels. That's what you're buying into and, certainly, we have a ton of work to do to get to that point."
The right-winger from Plymouth, Minn., is going into the final year of a contract that has a salary-cap hit of $5.6 million. He’ll make $10 million in 2019-20 that includes a signing bonus, $6.5 million in 2020-21, $10 million in 2021-22, $6.5 million in 2022-23 and $8.25 million in 2023-24.
Wheeler led the Jets with a career-high 91 points (23 goals, 68 assists) last season, good for ninth in NHL scoring. The assist total tied him for the league lead. It was the fifth consecutive season he's reached at least 20 goals and the sixth time in his career.
"He's just one of those guys that you can't go out there and replace or find a player similar to what he can do," Jets veteran centre Bryan Little said.
"And what he can do for this team in the dressing room and off ice, you can't find anyone else like that."
Little has little doubt his six-foot-five, 225-pound friend can be a really good player for many years.
"He's a real professional when it comes to eating and working out and taking care of himself," Little said.
"And that's another good reason to have him here, for young guys to kind of see this is the way you should be handling yourself and being a professional off the ice.”
Wheeler, going into his third season as captain, said he didn't want an unsettled contract to be a distraction for the team.
"I wanted to do this once right now, talk about contracts once and then play hockey," he said.
"I didn't want this to a be a year-long thing where we're coming in every day getting asked about stuff like that. That was where my head was at, my heart.”
He wasn't tempted by the thought of becoming an unrestricted free agent next summer.
"The money wasn't as attractive when I look situation-wise and where I fit in in a team, in a community,” said the versatile Wheeler, who played some games at centre when Mark Scheifele was hurt last season.
"I couldn't see myself anywhere else."
Wheeler was an NHL all-star for the first time last season, coinciding with the club making its first appearance in the NHL Western Conference final. They lost in five games to the Vegas Golden Knights.
"To finally kind of get over the hump a bit and have some success and play some really meaningful, fun hockey last spring, it just makes you hungry for more," he said.
The contract extension will make Wheeler the highest-paid player on the team, although Finnish sniper Patrik Laine will soon need a new deal.
"It's one of those days where you are going to look back and realize the importance of this, and certainly the commitment we've made to Blake and the commitment Blake has made to this franchise and to the community as well,” Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff said on a conference call.
The GM feels Wheeler will be productive throughout the contract.
"Blake is an extraordinary athlete, someone that sets the bar each and every training camp with respect to fitness, sets the bar each and every day at practice,” Cheveldayoff said. "He's a driver of our team and he's grown into that.
"Blake is an interesting individual in a sense that he wasn't one of those guys who started playing at 18 or 19 in the league. I think the mileage on the odometer is a little different than the age on the clock."
Winnipeg locked up goalie Connor Hellebuyck to a six-year, US$37-million contract and defenceman Jacob Trouba to a one-year deal worth $5.5 million in July, but still needs to sign fellow restricted free agent defenceman Josh Morrissey before training camp opens Sept. 13.
Judy Owen, The Canadian Press