WILMINGTON, Mass. – For three games in a row, Blake Wheeler has played the same position with the same linemates.
That he still wasn’t able to prevent his goal-less drought from reaching 13 games – the second-longest dry spell of his NHL career – shows that maybe his varying position in the team’s lineup isn’t the only thing holding him back from producing at a level expected of a player of his makeup and pay check.
At different times, Wheeler has been a center or a wing. He has been a left wing or a right wing. He has been on the fourth line, third line or second line. The only thing he hasn’t been for some time is offensively productive. He has been stuck on 10 goals since he last scored Jan. 11.
“Yeah, I’m kind of the utility guy. That’s my role,” Wheeler told TheBruinsBlog.net after practice today at Ristuccia Arena. “And I’m not bitching. It’s my role, it is what it is, and from my standpoint we have a group of guys that can go a long ways and that’s all I care about. Slide me in wherever you think I’m going to do the best job and I’m going to do my best for you. And hopefully at the end of the day we are where we’re supposed to be.”
Wheeler’s place in the lineup might stay the same as it has been lately Sunday in Detroit, but his center might change – again. After three games flanking Zach Hamill along with Michael Ryder, Wheeler skated next to Tyler Seguin and opposite Ryder in a combination that has struggled in the recent past. Wheeler has also centered that line while head coach Claude Julien has tried to find a way to spark that combination without messing with his top two lines of Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Nathan Horton, and Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and Mark Recchi.
In just his third pro season, the 24-year-old Wheeler has proven that he can be a reliable defensive player, regardless of position, and one of the best penalty-killers the Bruins have (he averages 1:25 of shorthanded ice time). The hope that he would become a vaunted sniper, however, hasn’t been fulfilled. After scoring just 18 goals last season in a campaign that featured a career-high 15-game drought, Wheeler is now on pace to score just 15 goals. He had been on pace for 19 – a number Boston surely would’ve accepted from a player in its bottom six.
“That’s one of those things. You want to score goals, obviously. It’s not like I’ve been completely held off the board. Prior to that 13-game stretch, I [had eight assists] on the year. So I’m starting to do that a bit more and the goals aren’t coming,” said Wheeler, who has added six assists to his ledger during the recent goal drought. “I’m not looking at that as a negative. Certainly, there are areas that I can improve on to get a goal – get in those tough areas a bit more. At the same time, you’ve got to get pucks delivered there. It’s kind of a struggle we’ve had from one game to the next. One game we score eight, the next game we score zero or one, and it’s just those little things. You’ve got to have pucks delivered there, you’ve got to have bodies there and you’ve got to have some good bounces too.”
Wheeler says he’s confident there hasn’t been a single night this year that he didn’t give a 100-percent, high-energy performance. Julien doesn’t dispute that notion. The coach is looking at Wheeler’s ever-evolving role as a positive for the team, and at his production problems as a product of Boston’s shaken lineup.
“If anything a guy should be proud of what he’s achieved in all those areas,” said Julien pointing to Wheeler’s penalty-kill time and occasional participation on the power play. “And I think now what’s really happened, I think, is in [Marc Savard’s] absence we’re probably missing an experienced center in regards to that. And that’s just taking – not only him but also Michael Ryder – it’s taking a little bit away from that line, taking a little bit away from those guys.
“That’s what’s hurt the most in regards to that, but I think he’s one of those guys that I can use in all areas. He had a good start. He’s probably feeling a little bit disappointed right now because besides his work ethic, the points aren’t coming, the production isn’t there. But the rest of his game – he works hard, he shows up every night. And offensively, maybe with somebody experienced in the middle, which we had — at one point we were able to have three lines produce for us — I think right now that’s the only thing that could definitely help.
“But he’s got to find a little bit of his touch again offensively, and once he finds that I think his confidence will be there and he’ll probably be a little happier too. He’s probably more disappointed with that than anything else.”
Disappointed and confused are probably the best two adjectives to describe Wheeler right now. However, he’s still full of as much belief in himself as he is skill and promise to become a legitimate two-way threat. We have seen Wheeler’s potential for that come out during a brief stint at center, and at times on the wing with Ryder and Krejci, and with Bergeron and Recchi. Both his accumulated playing experience at the sport’s highest level and the knowledge he has soaked in from two former Selke Trophy-winning assistant coaches – Craig Ramsay and Doug Jarvis – have obviously polished him at the defensive end. It’s just a matter of that offensive side catching up.
There might come a day when he has to accept a role as a purely defensive player that can chip in, but Wheeler’s not ready to do that just yet.
“I think I can do both. I think that’s something I can definitely do both of,” he said. “I see myself being a guy that can play against other teams’ best players, but also produce offensively. I think that’s something I can definitely do. Whether that’s going to be right now, I don’t know if that’s my position I’m in right now. But certainly down the road that’s what I see myself as being able to play. I love the challenge of being able to play against the other teams’ best player and make their life tough. That seems to give me a lot of energy and make the game exciting.”
Wheeler’s size and athleticism have always combined to excite observers — from the Phoenix Coyotes, who drafted him fifth overall in 2004, to the Bruins, who signed him as a free agent in July 2008 — about his future. For Boston to be the best team it can be, Wheeler has to turn effort into output and create some more excitement about the present.