Blake Wheeler was the talk of early training camp when he showed up in Boston with 15 pounds of extra muscle added to his athletic frame.
The second-year forward worked out diligently during the offseason with dual purposes: getting stronger and more physical with his puck possession in the contested areas and avoiding the rookie fade that befell him in his first NHL season.
Wheeler had 14 goals and 16 assists in his first 46 games before the All-Star break last season, but he ran headlong into the rookie wall after being invited to the Young Stars game at All-Star weekend in Montreal.
The 6-foot-3, 200-pounder sagged to seven goals and eight assists in 35 games after the break and watched both his minutes and role on the team shrink as his team breezed into the playoffs. By the time the Bruins locked horns with the Hurricanes in the second round, Wheeler had lost his spot in the lineup to Byron Bitz and simply didn’t have enough left in the tank mentally or physically to be a difference-maker.
Wheeler looked to counteract that rookie burnout when he hit the gym hard and added 15 pounds of “good weight” over the summer, and he came into camp ready to prove the doubters wrong.
Perhaps the rangy forward was even trying a little too hard.
Wheeler, by his own admission and by the observations of coach Claude Julien, didn’t have the strongest training camp this time around with the Bruins despite the added strength — he finished with two assists and eight penalty minutes in six preseason games. It seems that Wheeler was trying to alter his game in accordance with his newfound size and strength, and it threw him off his proper path as a player.
“When you’re thinking a lot, you’re not using your speed and your attributes as well, and hesitation really comes into your game,” Wheeler said. “That’s not really my style. I’ve got to be up-tempo and use my legs and my hands. I sometimes think I have a tendency to think too much out there [on the ice] and that’s been going on this preseason.
“I had been over-thinking a bit out there, but tonight I just let go of everything and played hockey like I used to. I think that definitely helps when you go and do that, and I felt like I was a better hockey player for it.”
Some of the struggles are typical of a skilled player simply searching for his game early in the season. The symptoms: trying to be too fine with a pass or preparing with too much care while looking for the perfect shot. It’s pretty typical stuff for a young player going about crafting an anchored identity in the NHL world, and it’s something that Julien easily recognized in Wheeler’s first few exhibition performances.
The coach and player had a philosophical conversation about Wheeler’s slow start in Montreal during the first of the three-games-in-three-nights preseason gauntlet, and Julien clearly likes the recent improvement in Wheeler’s game. The second-year forward was reconnecting with his linemates and taking the puck with strength toward the cage, and — most important of all — carrying the puck with confidence in the offensive zone.
In other words, he’s back to being the ‘Old Wheels’ again.
‘I think in [Wheeler’s] case and when I talked to him, over-thinking is something that can really hurt a player,” Julien said. “I think that is what he was doing, he was over-thinking out there. He probably had to get his head around what he has to do as a player and not over-think.
“He came in here last year and the only thing that was on his mind is he wanted to make the team. He made it, so maybe he’s thinking too much about what he has to do in certain situations. After our chat I saw a guy who probably is more relaxed, and I think that game in Montreal we had a chat with him. He was a little better. Tonight we saw flashes of the old 'Wheels,’ if you want to put it that way. I think he’ll come around. We need guys like him to come around.”
Part of the struggles also involved Wheeler getting a bit too preoccupied with showing off his newfound size and strength. Lining up an opponent in the corner became a little too important rather than using his attributes to greater offensive advantage for him and his team. The physicial intimidation game was never part of Wheeler's hockey toolbox, and there was no reason to implement it at the NHL level.
“Obviously, I’ve talked about coming into camp with the new weight and working hard this offseason, and maybe I was a little too hyped-up coming into camp and trying to show everyone what I can do. You start doing too much and thinking, too, and then you put too much pressure on yourself," Wheeler said. "There’s no reason to.
“I was maybe focused a little too much on things that I’m not, and you lose sight a little bit of the things that you do well as a player. It can be anything: trying to make cute plays when they’re not needed, trying to run guys through the glass when you hit them. I talked ad nauseum about wanting to add more physicality to my game, but it’s a fine line with taking yourself out of the play and having to skate to the entire other end of the rink when there’s no need to. It’s about finding the best way to use that asset to my advantage, and winning the puck battles in the corners is my best way to do that.”
Wheeler is likely to start the season with David Krejci and Michael Ryder as his familiar line partners after putting together a memorable campaign last winter. But don’t be shocked if he also gets a shot at the right wing playing alongside Marc Savard and Milan Lucic on the top line while Julien searches for the right combination with Wheeler's good buddy, Phil Kessel, now out of the picture.
Either way, Wheeler is being counted upon to be one of those improving offensive forces buttressing the loss of Kessel’s 36 goals from last season. It appears as if the 23-year-old is ready for that on-ice responsibility after a brief bit of soul-searching through the abbreviated exhibition season, and the additional on-ice strength is again being used for its proper purpose: allowing Wheeler to maintain a consistent performance through the entire 82 regular-season games and playoffs.
With Wheeler on the right track, here are four other things we learned in the B’s final preseason game against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the TD Garden Saturday night:
SOBOTKA HAS WON A SPOT ON THE TEAM WITH HIS FLASHBACK PLAY
Bruins coach Claude Julien called for 22-year-old Czech Republic center/winger Vladimir Sobotka to play with a little more confidence after watching the first few preseason games, and the scrap-metal forward responded with a trio of performances that were vintage 2007-08 Sobotka. That was the season Sobotka stepped in as a 20-year-old rookie and won a regular spot in Boston's regular-season and playoff lineup with his combination of gritty, fearless, in-your-face hockey and occasional lamp-lighting skill.
Sobotka was flying all over the ice and filling up Saturday night’s box score with a first-period sniper score, three total shots on net, three hits landed against the Blue Jackets, one blocked shot and a plus-1 for the evening.
It was the second game in a row that Sobotka notched a point while competing with fellow rink pest Brad Marchand for a coveted spot on the B’s final roster, and the young forward looked very solid centering a bruising fourth line between Byron Bitz and Shawn Thornton. Sobotka’s versatility at playing both center and wing — and a nagging groin injury that kept Steve Begin out of the preseason finale — may ultimately be his saving grace when final roster cuts come down before Oct. 1. But the youngster also made a strong case with the B's coaching staff when the games mattered most at the end the exhibition season.
“Less thinking and just going out there and playing,” Julien said. “I think a lot of those guys get caught in those situations where they think too much and they just don’t play.
“If you’re playing on your heels you’re not giving your full value and I think he has relaxed a little as well and decided to play. We are starting to see the Vladdy we saw a couple years ago.”
IT’S A GOOD THING THE BRUINS DON’T PLAY THREE GAMES IN THREE NIGHTS DURING THE SEASON
Julien had the correct adjective when he described the second half of Saturday night’s 4-2 loss to the Blue Jackets as “horrendous.”
The B’s coach watched as the preseason schedule came to an end with road games in Montreal and Ottawa on Thursday and Friday, respectively, and then a final, ragged 60 minutes against the Blue Jackets at home on Saturday night. Or to be more exact, a ragged 20-30 minutes after a pretty promising start for the spoked B crew.
The B’s looked good over the game’s first 30 minutes with some precision passing and impressive offensive play from Derek Morris, but their defense started trading odd-man rushes with a young, skilled Columbus unit in the third period and found themselves outgunned by a 14-7 shot total. The Blue Jackets scored three unanswered goals in the third to take the victory, and Boston didn’t much resemble the disciplined, structured team Julien is expecting to see when the real bullets start flying Thursday night.
With Sunday off, the Bruins now have three practices to rest, regroup and get themselves ready for the best player in the NHL — Alex Ovechkin — and his band of talented Washington Capitals.
“These guys aren’t machines. I’ve always said that. Three in three — we don’t even play that during the regular season,” Julien said. “Even though I sat [regular] guys out, those six games in eight nights, that’s a tough camp. During the season sometimes you absorb those a little better because you’re on the road and in great playing shape, but when you have been off all summer and you start off with that kind of schedule, it’s tough.
“From our side of it, when we start trading off scoring chances, we are off our game. It’s wide open and it’s back and forth. It is exciting, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think that’s how were successful last year. We’ll give them less and we’ll take more, that’s our philosophy.”
RASK IS READY TO EMBARK ON A PROMISING BRUINS CAREER
With a 4-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets still fresh in his mind, rookie goaltender Tuukka Rask still couldn't hide his excitement at winning a spot on the roster Saturday afternoon.
The B's announced that Dany Sabourin was being sent down to Providence prior to the game, and that meant a goalie competition — one that was fairly one-sided — was officially over.
One short season ago, Rask had the best camp of any Bruins goaltender, but he was busted down to the AHL for seasoning with veterans Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez on the roster. It was difficult for the 22-year-old to hide his frustration on his way down, but things couldn't be more opposite this time around as Thomas' understudy.
"[I'm] really excited," said Rask. "This is something that I've been working toward. I feel for [Sabourin] because I was in the same spot last year. Obviously, it's fun to be here, and I've been hoping for it to happen. It's good that it happened.
"It's a little different feeling [this year]. You can imagine what it feels like when you have a good camp and then you're sent down. But if that's the way things are, you've got to get over it."
The young goalie clearly was battling with a fatigued team in front of him playing its sixth game in eight nights, but there were flashes of exactly what he'll bring to the table this season.
He's bigger and plays a much more silent game between the pipes than his Vezina Trophy-winning partner, and he managed 31 saves against a Blue Jackets team piling on Grade A chances over the final 30 minutes of play.
"When you looked at the way [Tuukka] played in those first few exhibition games, it was clear he had improved a lot from what I saw last year," Julien said. "Personally, from what I saw in the playoffs in Providence the year before, he had collapsed a little bit.
Especially in that last game.
"Mentally he's become stronger, and physically he's become stronger and he's in a lot more control. He's got a lot more experience and he's the right fit for us," Julien added. "[Saturday night], I think he played well. Didn't have much help in front of him. We're confident in him, and he's going to play. We all know Timmy is not a goaltender that will play 70 or 75 games. Tuukka will need to come in and do the job, and we're confident in him."
Rask was never more impressive than when he completely stonewalled Russian sniper Nikita Filatov skating in all alone on a golden opportunity in the third period. There was no panic, no quick movements, and Rask didn't allow any holes for Filatov to pick at as he came speeding toward the cage. Rask won't be required to play any more than 30-35 games in his first season backing up Thomas, but the 6-foot-2, 171-pounder is ready to fill whatever role comes his way.
“I'm really excited for Thursday and to get things going,” Rask said. “We've just got to get this train going on the right track. Just get a good start and never look back.
“The job I'm given, I'm going to try the best I can and help this team. You want to do your best and simply help the team. That's all I can do. I feel like I've been this team for two weeks now, and it feels good.”
DON’T MESS WITH THESE BRUINS
It doesn’t appear that much has changed with the Bruins if it’s an opposing team foolishly attempting to take liberties with anybody on the B’s roster. The Big Bad B's are still ready to stand up for themselves and each other at any possible turn. Tommy Sestito put a heavy hit in Chuck Kobasew in the third period and then basically sat down on him at ice level while throwing shots at Kobasew’s head following the hit.
A few shifts later, Jackets forward Michael Blunden skated in hard as Rask went behind the Boston net to retrieve a puck. Blunden caromed hard into the legs of the B’s rookie goaltender after catching an edge on the ice. Rask went down on his back with a pretty healthy amount of force, like a set of bowling pins, and then scurried quickly back into his net without a penalty call.
That was enough for Kobasew.
The scrappy winger went after Blunden and eventually dropped the gloves for a preseason scrap that served as the undercard for Shawn Thornton and Jared Boll brawling almost simultaneously in the far corner. Kobasew wasn’t aware that Thornton was trading punches in the group melee — and both Thornton and Boll ended up getting game misconducts for starting a second fight during the same stoppage in play. Kobasew knew something was up, though, and it was pretty clear that it wasn’t him.
“I heard the crowd cheering, and I knew they weren’t cheering for me,” Kobasew said with a smile, referring to Thornton’s status as a crowd favorite. “Whether it’s a goalie, a player, it doesn’t matter who it is. Everyone here wants to look out for each other, and that’s all that was. It’s no different. It’s happened a lot before.”