This is a big week for Boston Bruins winger Blake Wheeler.
Not that the previous weeks of his first professional season haven’t been huge – after all, he’s been thrown right into the fire as a top-nine forward on an NHL club that started the year with high expectations and is now the team everyone in the Eastern Conference is gunning for.
But for the first time since he pulled on a black and gold sweater and started getting paid to play hockey, Wheeler’s parents are coming to visit.
When they get to the Hub, they’ll find their well-adjusted offspring living independently in the North End in the same vicinity of a number of his teammates.
“I love playing hockey, so I couldn’t imagine a better life,” said Wheeler, still only seven months removed from his time as an undergrad at the University of Minnesota. “Not having to do homework and study for tests makes it feel like it’s quite a weight off my shoulders. So I’m just focusing on one thing and making a pretty good life.”
And when they take in a Bruins game at the TD Banknorth Garen this week, his parents willl find a player who looks like anything but a rookie – skating on the Bruins’ third line along center David Krejci and right wing Michael Ryder. Through 30 games, Wheeler has potted nine goals, notched eight assists and posted a plus-18 rating. The plus/minus ranks him in third place in the entire NHL, two plusses off the lead.
“Stats are what they are. For me, it’s a lot more about going out and getting two points as a team,” said the 22-year-old Wheeler. “I could throw any cliché your way, but it’s the truth. When you go out there and you buy into the team system, you’re just playing to win every night, good things happen. That’s why I think a lot of guys on the team are having success because as a whole we just want to win and we’re having success doing that. And when you’re having success, the numbers are going to be higher.”
That mature approach to weighing team goals with personal ones isn’t the only area that Wheeler has proven to be experienced beyond his years. Take for instance his ability to play the off wing, where he’s been situated for the better part of the last month and a half. He believes that skating at center with the Golden Gophers definitely helped him become versatile enough to make his flawless switch to the left side.
“I think (playing center in college) helps. Playing forward, you never know where you’re going to be on the ice – you’re not always going to be on the left side or the right side. … So feeling comfortable at all three positions helps because you don’t think, it’s not in the back of your head – ‘What am I supposed to do now?’ – it’s more reaction. So it’s definitely beneficial,” he explained.
Some of the most lethal goal-scores in the NHL thrive on the off wing, and Wheeler has found that there are a lot of benefits to being on the left side of the offensive zone.
“I always loved being on that one side. It’s a lot easier to get the shot off quicker, as opposed to being on your right wing, you’ve got to cradle it and then you’ve got to shoot it. It definitely helps,” he said. “The goalie is out of position a lot more and you find yourself with a lot more open net. The toughest part is just getting to that spot and getting in the right situation.”
In the defensive zone, Wheeler has also made the necessary adjustments to succeed on the off side. He’s also adapted to the NHL rules enforcement on stick fouls. Wheeler has been called for just seven minors despite his 12:10 of average ice time during his first year in the NHL after three years of college.
“I think maybe my first game or two in the preseason, I got a couple stick penalties like that – the intentions were good, trying to skate hard, back check hard, but if you even touch the guy a little bit, they’re going to call it,” said Wheeler, who has been whistled for four hooking penalties this season. “So right then and there (I realized) you’ve just got to watch where your stick’s going and just kind of have that presence of mind.”
So Wheeler has set out to make sure he improves his positioning and uses his speed to his advantage even without the puck.
“You’ve got to be in the right spot. And with the new rules, you’ve got to be able to skate and you’ve got to be quick. I think that helps, kind of anticipating. It’s kind of a bad habit, where in college you can get away with stick use. All of my penalties have been kind of stick penalties like that. I get away with a few sometimes. But I am getting better about just trying to skate and use my speed more instead of using my stick. That keeps you out of the box and helps turn pucks over too.”
Wheeler’s managed to keep out of the box plenty, and when he’s been on the ice exhilarating things have been happening. That should keep his parents entertained.