Work ethic makes Wheeler worth it

Wheeler/By S. Bradley

Every day seems like an endless barrage of email senders, feedback posters and talk-radio callers repeat the same opinions of Blake Wheeler.

Blake Wheeler isn’t tough enough. Blake Wheeler doesn’t go to the net. The Bruins should just dump Wheeler, he’s not worth the material his uniform’s made of.

My estimate is there are usually eight to 10 negative critiques of the soon-to-be 24-year-old winger for every positive one coming from the Bruins fans base. And it’s quite ridiculous, considering the number of players that treated last season as some sort of chance no-show job they were handed by Tony Soprano.

Now it looks like we’re going to see if Wheeler can prove the naysayers wrong while wearing black and gold for yet another season. Friday morning, the Bruins officially accepted the arbiter’s one-year, $2.2 million award for the 6-foot-5 forward. He could still potentially be trade bait, but it sounds like he’s here to stay for the foreseeable future.

Whether you want to chalk up Wheeler’s drop in production from 45 to 38 points from his rookie to second NHL season just a sophomore slump or a portend of what’s to come, you can’t deny the fact that the monetary award was a fair one considering what other players like David Perron, Clarke MacArthur have received either through settlements or arbitration rulings. We all know it could’ve been a lot worse, especially within the cozy confines of the Bruins’ salary cap.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Wheeler’s going to earn every penny of that award or turn into the bargain of the year by burying 35 goals and becoming the Bruins’ most successful sniper.

However, there’s one thing we can count on – Wheeler is going to try his best. After his rookie season ended in disaster because the rigors of the NHL caught up to him in his first year out of college and he missed just one regular season game (he was then scratched at the end of the ’09 playoffs), Wheeler went home and began to watch what he was eating better and bulked up. He reported to camp last fall heavier, but still mobile and you could at least see his puck-protection improve over the course of the year. He also, obviously, had a tough time adapting to life at a heavier weight, and also suffered from what most of the Bruins were battling all season: a team-wide, season-long scoring slump. As much as he could’ve done more, Wheeler’s centers could’ve done more to get him going as well.

During a conference call to discuss his new deal with the Bruins Friday morning, Wheeler talked about trying to be more physical this season. He wants to become a better forechecker, in the mold of Mark Recchi or Milan Lucic, and make sure that his body does the talking when his scoring touch isn’t working. He also explained that he has been doing some long-distance shooting in his driveway, as he tries to increase his range and make himself a threat from the areas that he might have to shoot from when he just can’t win a battle to get closer.

Again, whether all this work will pay off remains to be seen. But at least we know that Wheeler isn’t shy about identifying his own weaknesses and trying to rectify them. Unlike some of his teammates, in particular a few Bruins veterans that failed to live up to their expectations last season, he doesn’t make excuses about motivation or focus. He knows that he’s been a passenger more often than he’s been an active participant in Boston’s fortunes. For every game like last year’s Game 3 against Philadelphia, there are a bunch like Game 4-7 against the Flyers and other stretches where you want to send out an APB for Wheeler’s presence.

Nonetheless, with the money being an accurate reflection of his production and his potential to this point, the Bruins have themselves a young forward that could blossom. If he doesn’t, it’s a one-year commitment that hasn’t strangled them financially and they can reassess next summer, when Wheeler will again be a restricted free agent and have arbitration rights. Just remember, had the Bruins walked away, Wheeler would’ve been unrestricted and there are any number of teams – the New York Islanders and Minnesota Wild come to mind – that would’ve lined up to get themselves a $2.2 million young forward with size that could put up at least 50 points.

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