When July 1 rolled around, there were a number of ways Boston Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli could’ve gone into the free-agent pool and a potpourri of unrestricted free agents he could’ve pursued.
But in the week leading up to the opening of the free-agent market, Chiarelli had already secured a talented, large player with the ability to play both wing and center, play both ends of the rink, and score in any number of ways. Although Blake Wheeler didn’t have the NHL pedigree of fellow unrestricted free agents Marian Hossa, Michael Ryder, Andrew Brunette, Sean Avery, Wade Redden or Brian Campbell, the Bruins’ scouts obviously saw the potential.
Wheeler, a former first-round pick of Phoenix, had become a UFA after his junior season at the University of Minnesota by using a glitch in the collective bargaining agreement. By the end of training camp, the Bruins’ front office personnel and coaching staff had witnessed the maturity, skill and strength Wheeler possessed … and the rest, as they say, is history. Wheeler has spent the entire first three months of the regular season among the Bruins’ top nine forwards, plus time among the top six, where he is now. And he’s added penalty-killing duties to his resume, along with a cup of coffee here and there on the power play. Oh, did I mention he’s tied for fourth in the entire NHL at plus-19?
The fact is, Wheeler was arguably the best free-agent signing of the summer of ’08. Start by looking at his contract, which is the typical entry-level deal ($875,000 plus bonuses — some attainable, some a fantasy), and his age (22). Unlike some of the above-mentioned free agents from ’08, Wheeler is going to continue to improve and round out his game, which is already strong enough to produce 11-9-20 totals in his first 33 NHL games. Also, his contract — although the incentives put the Bruins in a bit of a bind during traning camp, when they had to make hard decisions on the likes of Peter Schaefer and Jeremy Reich — is mostly cap-friendly. To add a Hossa ($7.4 million), Redden ($6.5 million per) or even Brian Rolston ($5 million a year), the Bruins would’ve had to move money. A buyout or trade of Manny Fernandez? A trade of Marc Savard? Not signing Michael Ryder in addition to Wheeler to, in essence get two players for the price of one? Not re-sign restricted free agent Dennis Wideman? These are all options Chiarelli would’ve had to consider in order to fill his cap with a much-heralded, expensive free agent edition.
And don’t even try to compare the on-ice numbers. Wheeler’s totals are comparable to every fellow UFA, except Hossa. Of course, Hossa — an All-Star in his own right — plays on one of the NHL’s three or four elite teams alongside the likes of Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. For Detroit, Hossa’s one-year deal was a no-risk maneuver. Had Chiarelli had the same opportunity to ink Hossa, he would’ve been nuts to take it. To restructure an entire roster to make room for a guy only willing to commit to a team for one year would’ve been job suicide. Even if Hossa was willing to go to Boston for multiple years, his addition would’ve set the Bruins back because other players would’ve had to leave and young upcoming restricted free agents (Phil Kessel, David Krejci) would’ve become tougher to sign.
With Avery jettisoned from Dallas, Redden already earning boos on Broadway and other veterans like Pavol Demitra, Markus Naslund and Brunette putting up similar numbers to Wheeler but raking in a lot more cash, it’s obvious that Chiarelli’s decision to ink Wheeler and then complement that move with Ryder (although it looked like it was the other way around in early July), was the best move that he could’ve made in the “bang for your buck” department, and also for just plain bang.
The Bruins are reaping the rewards of those decisions and will continue to do so in the months, and years, ahead. And Blake Wheeler will go down as the best unrestricted free agent signing of the summer of ’08.