Blake Wheeler certainly didn’t traverse the conventional route to skating shifts on Causeway Street’s most famous frozen ice surface.
The 22-year-old rookie might never have donned the Original Six Spoked B sweater if he didn’t Free Wheel himself out onto the hockey highway less traveled. Wheeler, a dyed-in-the-wool hockey purist from the Great Puck State of Minnesota, was a high Phoenix Coyotes draft pick back in 2004, but understandably didn’t envision himself playing the game of hockey in the dry heat backdrop of the Arizona desert.
So he eschewed all contract offers from the Coyotes until their draft ownership rights expired following his junior season of college hockey, and Wheeler instead became a free agent with complete control over his future hockey address.
“It all speaks volumes to Blake. He certainly worked hard in the last number of years physically and on his game to put himself in that position,” said University of Minnesota hockey coach Don Lucia, who recruited the big forward after watching him as a youngster skating with Lucia’s own son. “I give him a lot of credit.
“Going in he became a free agent and left some money on the table, but he’s a very intelligent young man and in doing so he really took a look at the big picture,” added Lucia. “He felt Boston was the right place and the right fit for him, and he seems to have really made the right choice.”
Wheeler picked the Black and Gold amid legitimate interest from 25 other NHL teams vying for his services, and simply wanted to play in a city with some hockey history and a legit shot at some playoff hockey.
“There were no promises made between the management and us,” said Wheeler’s agent Matt Keator, who also represents defensemen Mark Stuart and Zdeno Chara. “He needed to earn a spot, and he went in and did it. He had 25 teams calling about him and he narrowed it down that he wanted to be in a traditional hockey market on a playoff team.
“There were a number [of teams] that offered that, but he ended up here [in Boston],” added Keator.
In many ways the Wheeler signing signals a sea change for the Bruins over the last several years as Boston is slowly turning back into a destination spot for hockey talent – rather than “just another place” where aspiring puck artists simply bided their time before leaving for their next spot on the hockey map.
Once upon a time B’s management overpaid for fading veterans and the worst kind of free agent fool’s gold – while sometimes neglecting and alienating their young talent -- but now the Black and Gold brain trust has agents steering their young and talented players toward the Hub. The change around has been stunning for those used to the same old stingy Bruins act, but it’s apparent to the players and the movers and shakers in the hockey community.
“Actions speak louder than words, right?” said Keator. “The way they handled [Milan] Lucic, [David] Krejci, [Mark] Stuart and all these young guys, people like myself take note of that when we’re trying to find a landing spot for kids [like Wheeler]. I think they’ve done a good job handling young players and they’re doing a good job with Blake.
“They haven’t giving anything to young guys like Lucic, Krejci or Blake and they’ve instead made them earn it,” added Keator. “I think that’s the key to developing young players, and that’s something they’ve done a really good job with.”
To say that Wheeler has been “the right fit” in Boston would seem to be an understatement. The right wing has given the Black and Gold another talented young player and is one of a mind-boggling six forwards aged 23 years old or younger regularly skating shifts for the Bruins this year.
The Baby B’s – it would seem – are less an appropriate name for Boston’s farm team in Providence, and could just as well describe the fresh-faced puck prodigies skating at the Garden.
“Blake came to us because he really liked our philosophy with regard to player development,” said Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli. “[The Focus on player development] helps you recruit players and it helps you brings these players up through the ranks.
“[Wheeler] was a fifth overall pick, so he’s certainly no surprise and no hidden gem,” added Chiarelli.
Normally a budding hockey talent in the “gem” category that’s drafted out of high school and slated for a major college hockey program – as Wheeler was when he was the fifth overall pick in the 2004 NHL draft following a couple of hockey grinders you might have heard of named Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin – simply absorbs the collegiate experience as a hockey incubator before signing on the dotted line with his draft team.
Not so much, however, with Wheeler.
The former draft property of the Phoenix Coyotes watched his stock cascade and ebb in the three years following a fateful draft that had the Desert Dogs front office pronouncing him as “a star” and “a real gem” before his first collegiate twirl with the Minnesota Golden Gophers. The rangy 6-foot-4 winger didn’t ever truly dominate in his one junior hockey season and three subsequent years of Golden Gophers hockey, but he was a solid contributor at those elite levels and many felt his game was tailored to the pro level.
“I’m impressed with the way he protects the puck and takes it to the net as well,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “That’s something we’ve been preaching for a year-and-a-half and it’s nice to see a young guy be able to come in and give us that play.”
The tireless work in the scoring areas of the ice – the place where tips, redirects and rebounds become Grade A scoring opportunities – allowed Wheeler to become the surprise hit of training camp. The first-year forward followed that by emerging as a goal-scoring success story with the Bruins as a rookie winger currently leading all puck greenhorns with six goals scored this season.
Wheeler is by no means a finished product and must still add some beef to a frame just screaming for an opportunity to fill out with added size and strength – along with a little more snarl -- to his current 6-foot-4, 205-pound frame, but there have already been impressive bursts of early production through Boston’s first 14 games.
Perhaps none more impressive than the hat trick against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Nov. 6 – the second Garden trifecta this season for a member of the Bruins’ kiddy crew to go along with Milan Lucic’s three-goal bonanza against the Atlanta Thrashers. Wheeler even received a woman’s bra tossed in with the usual flurry of baseball-style hats strewn about the ice – an undeniable piece of evidence from Wheeler’s big night that sits autographed and wrapped around a life-size stuffed bear in the trainer’s room adjacent to the Bruins’ locker room.
The hat trick was further reinforcement to the youngster that he needs to continue doing exactly what Minnesota assistant coach John Hill taught him during his three years as a Golden Gopher. Hill had some simple messages while firing countless pucks at Wheeler in front of a practice net: go to the front of the net, use your strength and big body and make life downright miserable for the guy in the goaltending equipment.
“I’ve put a lot of time and effort in protecting the puck down low and playing that ‘Big Style’ game and my usual game of making a lot of plays down low,” said Wheeler. “If I’m going to be scoring goals then [near the net] is where I’m going to be. Tipping and screening isn’t even an issue for me.
“I just like being around the net and screening the goalie. You always see if there are guys in front of the goalie then it’s making [the goalie’s] job that much tougher,” added Wheeler. “As long as I can get in front of the net, if it’s me [to score] it’s great and if it’s somebody else then it’s one on the board for us.”
Hill would force-feed Wheeler hours of Tomas Holmstrom footage, and the big winger watched and learned how the Detroit Red Wings mule-on-skates would simply camp himself on the goaltender’s front porch and make himself an offensive factor.
“Holmstrom is a guy I watched in the playoffs last year and it seemed like when you watched him there were almost two goalies out there. He was right in front of the goalie no matter what,” said Wheeler. “He’s a guy that somebody like me could really look up to.
“It’s great too because [Hill] had like a secret love affair for him and was constantly showing us clips and film of him tipping and screening,” added Wheeler. “He creates a lot of attention in front of the net. Having a big presence in front of the net is really a big key.”
Just as meaningful as the exotic Garden hat trick to Wheeler was a conversation that Chiarelli had with the young forward at the tail end of Boston’s road trip through the Western portion of Canada earlier this month. Wheeler was given the hockey club’s approval to find a permanent residence in Boston and he was also allowed to change his number to 26 after the team had furnished him with #42 in training camp.
Both were unmistakable signals from B’s management that Wheeler was “the Real Deal” and wouldn’t be going anywhere but up and onward for Boston this season.
“Anything can happen. You could change your number and then stink it up for two weeks straight and get sent down [to Providence],” said Wheeler when asked if the uniform change meant he was a permanent member of the team. “It’s great to have that sense, but you can’t get too comfortable. There’s always somebody that could take your spot just as easily as you got it.”
It’s that kind of sensible hockey logic that will keep Wheeler improving in what’s quickly becoming an outstanding rookie season, and it’s also the exact reason why he chose a Hockey Hub existence over dog days as a Desert Dog.
Joe Haggerty is a regular contributor to WEEI.com.