By the look of most of your emails and blog comments, Blake Wheeler is some combination of the antichrist, the Grinch that stole Christmas and Alex Rodriguez.
The messages in support of the Bruins winger staying vs. the ones requesting his exit from Boston are as outnumbered as NHL players using wood sticks in game action.
Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli, however, doesn’t run his team based on popular referendum. And in the case of keeping Wheeler, that just might be for the best.
Sources have told TheBruinsBlog.net over the last week that Wheeler is one of the few players Chiarelli is not shopping at this point and time. That’s a sure sign that even if Chiarelli winds up dealing the 6-foot-5, 205-pound forward, he knows that Wheeler still has great potential despite a slight decline in his production from his rookie year to his sophomore campaign.
Bruins brass and fans need just look at the track records of other former NCAA-bred NHL standouts to see that typically it takes at least three seasons for a player to completely adapt to the pro ranks and start to reach his potential. The list of players in this group is a virtual who’s who of stars of the league. Take a look:
*Zach Parise: After spending the lockout year in the AHL, Parise’s point totals went from 32 to 62 to 62 to 94 in his first four NHL seasons. So it took three pro seasons to hit his stride.
*Thomas Vanek: The star winger spent the lockout year in the AHL and then went from 48 points to 84 points in his first two NHL seasons. While he hasn’t reached even 70 points again, he’s established himself as a solid 60-point-per-year player.
*Dustin Penner: At 6-foot-4, 240-pounds, Penner might be the best comparable for Wheeler. Obviously he became grossly overpaid once Edmonton made its offer sheet to lure him from Anaheim, but Penner has made major strides. It took him until his fourth full NHL season to reach 63 points after never exceeding 47 in his first three seasons.
*Phil Kessel: You try to avoid mentioning the speedy winger in Bruins stories, but the fact is he went from 29 to 30 to 65 points in his first three seasons after leaving the University of Minnesota.
There are other examples as well, including guys that did and did not spend time in the AHL. Remember, Wheeler never tasted the American League, and has sat out just one regular-season NHL game since making the move to Boston.
Obviously, every player is different. Wheeler possesses the skills to be a legit 60-point guy each season. He showed it before he was drafted fifth overall in ’04. He showed it when he posted 35- and 38-point seasons for the Gophers and became a coveted free agent in the summer of ’08. His work ethic is unmatched (even in his second season, he spent plenty of post-practice time on the ice like a rookie) and his understanding of what he needs to improve is impeccable. He recognizes his weaknesses and tries to rectify the situation, like he did last summer when he returned to Boston with an extra 10 to 15 pounds on his lanky frame.
We all know Wheeler needs to spend more time at the net. His willingness and ability to do so, during the last season especially, have been way out of proportion to what a player of his size and skill is expected to accomplish. But at least he’s shown signs of a guy that could make the slot his work area. Some guys are so soft they wouldn’t go to the top of the crease with a suit of armor on. Wheeler has enjoyed stretches where his confidence and determination have combined to get him to the front. If you’re expecting him to be Cam Neely, you’re overreaching. He can become a power forward, with the power dial turned down just a bit from its maximum potential.
There are other areas Wheeler needs to get better, including decision-making with the puck (how many shots can one player pass up?) and awareness of what’s going on around him (he had to lead the team in going offsides). That doesn’t mean he should do it in another uniform. With Wheeler, you know that you have a player with above-average skill that’s willing to learn and is now familiar with Claude Julien’s coaching style and system. Despite a contract that could’ve been worth north of $2 million with bonuses the last two seasons, it’s unlikely Wheeler would break the bank – think somewhere in the $1.3 to 1.7 million range. And he fits the mold of player the Bruins want to stock their lineup with: big and young.
Before you toss Wheeler out the door, think back to how he performed on an offensively loaded team in ’08-09 and try to project what he might look like now in a top nine that should also include Nathan Horton and Taylor Hall/Tyler Seguin. A three-line-deep Bruins club will give Wheeler more room to grow, gain experience and produce. And that third pro year has proven to be a blooming period, which could change the opinion of most of the Wheeler detractors in our midst.