No. 6: There were plenty of conventional unrestricted free agents set to become available last July 1, but the Boston Bruins’ first order of business was to ink one that hit the open market through a different route.

Forward Blake Wheeler, a three-year standout at the University of Minnesota, had made it clear that he was going to use a clause in the collective bargaining agreement to become a UFA July 1. From the time the spring semester ended until the week leading up to the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, numerous NHL general managers attempted to woo the 6-foot-5, 208-pound former first-round pick (fifth overall in 2004) of the Phoenix Coyotes. Wheeler’s picking of the Bruins made a big enough impact to earn a place among the top 10 Bruins stories of the calendar year 2008.

A former collegiate teammate for one season with Bruins winger Phil Kessel, Wheeler gave a number of reasons for choosing Boston.

“One of the big things it was about the Boston Bruins organization was having someone like Mr. Cam Neely in the front office, just because the way he played the game is something I would like to model the way I need to play my game after to be successful at the next level. …

“And also, with the organization, the way they’ve developed some of the young players, they’ve developed guys like (Milan) Lucic and (Mark) Stuart and (David) Krejci last year. Just being part of an organization that’s up-and-coming, making it to the playoffs last year and having an exciting playoff run as well. That coupled with the unbelievable city of Boston just made it really a no-brainer for me.”

General manager Peter Chiarelli, who secured Wheeler’s signature on a basic entry-level contract, was excited to get an early jump on his summer of signings.

“He’s a big guy who played center last year, but I think he’s a natural winger. He’s strong on the puck, protects the puck very well, a character kid,” said the GM. “He’s close to playing. You have to make sure they get their feet wet properly, so we’ll see how it goes in camp. But he’s a big, strong kid who’s very enthusiastic and we’re excited to have.”

An informal poll when the Bruins arrived for training camp would’ve revealed a majority of opinions that Wheeler would need some seasoning in the AHL. But the 22-year-old sooned proved those projections wrong and earned a spot among the Bruins’ top nine forwards. Through his first 34 NHL games, Wheeler had put up 9-11-20 totals — near the lead among rookies in most major offensive characters. Plus he’d proven to be a solid defensive player with a plus-19 rating and occassional shifts on the Bruins’ penalty kill.

From youthful free agent to key cog on a team that emerged as one of the elite in the NHL, Wheeler had one heck of a year.