“The Rookie Wall.” The familiar moniker just sounds foreboding and full of peril when uttered in any professional sports setting — almost like a high hurdle or sports rite of passage every young player needs to topple before they’re truly established with their peers.
It’s a clichéd question rookies face during any particular swoon in their maiden voyage through the league. The situation is a tried-and-true one: a young newcomer takes a sport or a team by storm with energy and bravado the first few months of the season. But inevitably, there comes a point when the reality of a first pro season comes down like an unforgiving sledgehammer. Performances will start becoming inconsistent, and the bright young player battles to attain a level that seemed an automatic birthright earlier in the year.
In hockey there are varying levels of the “rookie wall,” depending on what part of the competitive hockey world that a player hails from. Skaters who have already been through the minor league battles suffer much less after enduring pro seasons that act as a fairly decent facsimile of the NHL way of life. But for players like 22-year-old Blake Wheeler, fresh off three college hockey seasons with the University of Minnesota where he never played more than 44 games in a single season, the rookie wall is a much more formidable adversary to battle through and conquer.
Through his first 37 games, Wheeler had 13 goals and 10 assists along with an excellent +23, and was garnering Calder Trophy consideration. But he’s dropped back to 2 goals and 8 assists and a +10 in his last 17 games played.
Blake, meet the “Rookie Wall.”
“Hitting a little bit of a wall is a normal thing for a player that’s used to playing only 40 games a year,” said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “Europeans in their first time in the NHL and first-time players will all normally hit a little bit of a wall, but then they do get their groove back. I’ve seen it at different levels when people are used to a 40- or 50-game schedule, and they’re coming to an 82-game schedule with all the travel for the first time.
“I think the important thing is to take a step back, keep your game as simple as you possibly can, and to not get discouraged,” added Julien. “These are times that you can learn and grow from. When everything is smooth it’s easy to stay positive. But when things are tough that’s when you have an opportunity to learn and grow more. The coaches understand what (Wheeler) is going through and we’re going to help him through it.”
Just ask fellow Golden Gophers alum Thomas Vanek about “The Wall.” After playing two seasons of college hockey at Minnesota, Vanek has become an All-Star performer and dangerous sniper for the Buffalo Sabres, but not before getting a full campaign with the Rochester Americans at the AHL level in 2004-05 prior to making the jump to the Sabres.
“I skate with Blake in the summertime, and I definitely knew that he was this good,” Vanek said. “If he plays his minutes as a young guy he’s going to make his mistakes, but the important thing is that he learns from them.
“I played in the lockout year in Rochester (after college) and it was hard,” said Vanek. “By the time February hit that’s usually about when you’re ready to go home. In the pros Christmas hits, and you still have 40 games to go in the season. But it’s not even the physical part of it. It’s more about mentally staying sharp throughout.
“Everybody hits (the wall) at one point or another whether it’s in games 40-50 or around game 50,” added Vanek. “Then you play out of it, but some guys never do come out of it (as rookies).”
To his credit, Wheeler has confidently brushed off any talk of the rookie wall or fatigue creeping into his game, even though he clearly hasn’t been as dominant a force as he was earlier in the season — a trend that extends to centerman David Krejci. Both were at the crux of the B’s offensive blast in the first half of the season, but have sputtered into much more of a boom-or-bust pattern as the intensity has noticeably heightened in the last month.
“Everybody is different, but it isn’t something that I’ve really looked too much into,” Wheeler said. “There are ups and downs to every season. You’re not going to have bounces go your way; you’re going to hit posts. Things aren’t always going to go your way and that’s just the way it is.”
But isn’t there a possibility that he needs to make some kind of adjustment coming from a college hockey regular season that winds up in the beginning of March after a healthy break around the holidays?
“I wouldn’t trade this lifestyle for anything,” Wheeler said. “I think not having to balance schoolwork and hockey is actually a notch down from what I was dealing with last year. All the stress of hockey on top of school and social life is an underrated thing, pressure-wise.
“Game-wise, the NHL is a longer season, but in college we wouldn’t be done until April. So physically, it’s not that much longer and you practice and work out a lot more in college than in the pros. Realistically, it’s not something that my body can’t handle. I’m 22 years old and I have a young body, so I sometimes think I have it easy compared to some of the older guys here in the locker room.”
The power forward prodigy has scored just two goals in his last 19 games and played a season-low 7:30 in Saturday afternoon’s overtime loss to Philadelphia. Afterward, his coach admitted what has become pretty apparent to onlookers — Wheeler is battling through fatigue completely normal for a hockey player that’s approaching the most games he’s ever played in either junior hockey or the college ranks.
Just look at Wheeler’s production by month: three goals in 11 October games, five goals in 13 November games, five goals in 13 December games, and just one goal in 13 January games. Now, the 6-foot-4, 185-pounder has one goal in four February, games and seems to suffering the aftereffects of logging an average of 16:41 during those unlucky 13 games in the dog days of January.
“He’s going through he same stage as any first year player will go through. He’s going through a bit of a tough stage here where he hasn’t scored lately. I think maybe he’s looking a little tired,” Julien said. “He’s not as strong on the puck as he has been, and he’s losing some battles, where at the beginning of the year you saw a guy winning most of those battles and using his size and strength to his advantage.
“But this is a process that I think we expected, and right now it’s just up to him to try and work his way through it.”
As much as the rookie wall seems to be breaking down Wheeler in a real endurance-testing stretch of hockey within the B’s schedule, his fellow Golden Gopher alum has some pretty sound advice as the 25-year-old voice of experience.
“I think the best thing you can do as a young guy is pay attention to what the older guys are doing,” Vanek said. “You’ve got to get your rest. When you’re a younger guy you tend to be on the ice all the time working on things and fooling around, and you’ve got watch what the veterans do. They get off (the ice), get their rest and then they’re ready for the next day.”
Wheeler has all the tools in the hockey toolbox and the wonderfully giving gift of fresh, young skating legs and it’s a good bet that it’s only a matter of time before the lengthy winger bumps right over “The Wall” and starts lighting it up again on the other side.
“It’s all about having fun and doing what I’ve been doing all year,” said Wheeler. “It’s a pretty simple formula.”
It’ll be simple again when “The Wall” is in the rearview mirror for the Big Wheeler.
Joe Haggerty covers the Bruins for WEEI.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.