Rangers lament loss of veteran Blake Wheeler for season

ByGreg Wyshynski ESPN logo
Saturday, February 17, 2024

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ -- Blake Wheeler's regular season ended Thursday night when he injured his right leg in the New York Rangers' win over theMontreal Canadiens.

As the Rangers prepare for their Stadium Series game against the New York Islanders on Sunday afternoon at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, the loss of the 37-year-old Wheeler was weighing heavily on them.

"As much as these guys are teammates, we lost a friend. He's obviously going through something that no one wants to go through, so there's more to it than just the impact on the team," Rangers captain Jacob Troubasaid. "We all care a lot about the hockey and our jobs, but we're also humans and friends and have families outside the rink."

Trouba was Wheeler's teammate for six seasons in Winnipeg before the two were reunited this season with the Rangers.

"I'm not saying this is true, but maybe he played his last hockey game [last night]. That's something that you see as a player and as a friend. It's emotional. It's something you think about so that you don't take things for granted here," Trouba said. "And for me it's a little extra tough. He's a guy I looked up to, and he's helped me a lot in my career."

Wheeler went down in pain 11 minutes into New York's 7-4 win. His right leg bent at an unnatural angle, and he was unable to put weight on it, needing help getting off the ice. The Rangers placed him on injured reserve Friday.

Wheeler has 21 points in 54 games in his first season with the team after being bought out of his previous contract last summer by Winnipeg.

"He's been amazing since he's been here," Rangers coach Peter Laviolette said. "His presence, he comes into work every day positive, hardworking. He was committed to being a part of this team and making it successful, and he did that both in the room and on the ice.

"And when you lose a veteran player like that, with such an impact in the room, that's tough to replace. Certainly our thoughts are with him and a healthy recovery at some point. But that's a tough one last night. We miss him."

Wheeler had been skating with center Mika Zibanejad and winger Chris Kreider on the Rangers' top line. In practice at MetLife on Friday, winger Jimmy Vesey took his place. Vesey has 12 goals and 6 assists in 52 games this season for the Rangers and has skated with Zibanejad and Kreider as a linemate before.

"It feels good to rewarded for good play," Vesey said. "But at the same time, it's tough to see a teammate go down like that. Pretty awful to see him not be able to off the ice on his own. Especially a veteran guy that has been in the league so long. He's not going to stay down unless he's hurt. It's brutal see a friend go down like that."

After Wheeler was injured, the Rangers recalled forward Matt Rempe from the AHL Hartford Wolf Pack. He skated on the team's fourth line in practice Friday. If he plays in Sunday's Stadium Series game, he could become the first rookie to make his NHL debut in an outdoor game, according to the league.

Laviolette wouldn't confirm that Rempe is in the lineup but praised his recent play in the AHL and called him "a great kid, smiling from ear to ear, looking for an opportunity to play." Rempe, 21, said he couldn't help but notice the next game on the calendar for the Rangers after his recall.

"Outdoor game. That would be pretty damn cool," he said.

His mother and two sisters are flying in Saturday to attend Sunday's game and potentially see Rempe make his NHL debut. He said his skills are suited for an intense game against a rival.

"I think I play a hard physical game that runs on adrenaline, so I'm going be juiced up to the max. I think I'd be buzzing out there. How can you not be going, with all the fans and playing outdoors? Like, this is pure hockey. It's unreal," he said.

Vesey said it would be a debut to remember.

"That would be a pretty sick first game. Stadium Series and Rangers vs. Islanders," he said. "If he's in, I'd probably just say that it was the coolest NHL debut I've seen so far."

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