If the Bruins really want to improve their offense this year without making a trade for a major goal-scorer, then improvement from within is necessary.
Looking down the line, there are players on the Boston bench who could improve their performance in the lamp-lighting department, but there is one in particular with the potential to break out and carry the Bruins.
That would be Blake Wheeler.
Along with many Bruins this year, Wheeler is on the shorter side of the production scale from what was expected in August. Yet on potential alone, he has the ability to take the next step from productive to prolific.
A factor that has led to the dearth of Bruins goals this year has been the lack of progress from the younger contingent of the team. Milan Lucic has been injured and has not gotten into a groove this season. David Krejci has not ascended to Marc Savard levels (perhaps because of his offseason hip surgery). Vladimir Sobotka and Byron Bitz are not goal-scorers and are healthy scratches more often than not. Phil Kessel, of course, is kicking it in Ontario.
That leaves Wheeler.
Bruins fans have to be wondering exactly what they have in Wheeler. He scored 21 goals as a rookie last year and looks set to match that this season with 13 through 60 games. In his second year out of the University of Minnesota, Wheeler continues to grow.
“I think he keeps getting better and better,” coach Claude Julien said at practice a few weeks ago. “There is a thing about him where he is a pretty smart individual to begin with, understands the game, so he tries to grow as a player in the areas where a lot of other players wouldn’t think about growing.”
It was considered a minor coup in the NHL when the Bruins signed Wheeler. He was drafted with the fifth overall pick by the Phoenix Coyotes in the 2004 draft but never signed with the team and became a free agent when he left the University of Minnesota. The signing was a move that has become a typical in the reign of general manager Peter Chiarelli — stocking the roster with former first- or second-round picks that, for one reason or another, did not work out for the teams that selected them (see Daniel Paille, Petteri Nokelainen, Johnny Boychuk).
None of those players were drafted as high as Wheeler and, understandably, the Bruins are looking for a lot of production from the former lottery pick.
Going back to the 2004 draft, Wheeler’s production is more or less in line, or better, than most of the players taken that year. Granted, Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin were the first two picks in that draft, but if you exclude them from the equation, Wheeler looks pretty good.
Cam Barker and Andrew Ladd were the two players drafted ahead of Wheeler. Barker has become a decent defenseman, though probably not what the Blackhawks envisioned when they took him with the third pick. He put up 40 points (six goals, 34 assists) last year but had only 14 points through 51 games this year before being shipped to the Wild on Feb. 12.
The fourth pick, Ladd, has played 300 games for Carolina and now Chicago and has scored 57 goals, with his best season coming last year when he had 49 points on 15 goals and 34 assists. That is in line with Wheeler’s production in his rookie season (45 points), and Ladd probably is Wheeler’s closest comparable but still not what a team looks for in a lottery pick.
Outside of Ovechkin and Malkin, the best pure scorer to come out of the 2004 draft probably was Alexander Radulov (a Russian, no surprise there). Radulov was drafted by the Predators with the 15th pick and had 18 and 26 goals in two seasons in Nashville before controversially transferring to Savalat UFA of the KHL in Russia.
Travis Zajac (20th, Devils) and Wotjek Wolski (21st, Avalanche) have become productive, though not prolific, NHL players. Wheeler should mature enough to best their production within a year or two. Outside of Ovechkin and Malkin, the only other All-Stars to come out of 2004 are Mike Green (29th, Capitals) and Mark Streit (262nd, Canadiens, now with the Islanders and captain of Switzerland at the Olympics). As with any draft, there are a couple of other decent players and some surprises (Streit was a great find in the ninth round) along with a plethora of flops. In terms of comparables, Wheeler stands in the middle of the second tier of 2004 draftees.
(It is important to note that the players taken in the 2004 draft were sometimes helped and sometimes hindered by the NHL lockout that year and thus not immediately able to participate in any form with their new NHL teams.)
The Bruins have paired Wheeler with another player in the second tier from 2004 in Krejci, Boston’s first pick, 63rd overall. Along with Lucic, the Bruins front office hopes that the trio will be the first line of the future or, at least, a productive second line to Savard and whomever is matched with him. Last season was encouraging for the pair, as Krejci led the league in plus/minus at 37 while Wheeler was right behind him at 36. This year, partly because of the Bruins' woes, the pair are minus-1 and minus-6, respectively.
Like Krejci and Lucic, Wheeler still is a work in progress. Bruins fans will tell you that if there is an offsides call on a rush, there is a good probability that Wheeler is somewhere in the vicinity. At 6-foot 5 and 205 pounds, Wheeler is one of the bigger (at least taller) forwards in the league. Yet, like many players who grew up in Minnesota, Wheeler is often times more concerned with using his excellent stick-handling abilities to get to the net than using his wide frame to set screens in front of the goaltender. It is something that the forward knows he needs to work on.
“I think I have been more effective on the forecheck,” Wheeler said. “I have been better at creating turnovers, using my stick and things like that to create turnovers. I have been using my body better, especially in front of the net. Being a big presence in front of the net, screening the goaltender, getting goals that way. It has really helped my game.”
Wheeler’s teammates have noticed the concerted effort to evolve. Matt Hunwick, who came in with Wheeler as a rookie last season and roomed with him on the road (Wheeler now rooms with Daniel Paille while Hunwick is with Patrice Bergeron), sees a player making the effort to change his game.
“As a player, even this year I have seen his game grow and he is starting to do things this year that he maybe wasn’t doing as a first-year player,” Hunwick said. “I think one of the biggest things this year is his willingness to stand in front of the net and be a big body and a presence. He started to get on a goal streak that was little tips and little goals around the net, and someone that big, if you are willing to stand in there you are going to score goals and I think he is learning that as a player. You can see that when he came in he has great skating, great hands for a bigger player, but that kind of adds another element to his game.”
The Bruins also would love Wheeler to be more physical in the corners and on the puck. In terms of his evolution, this is something Wheeler has been working on this year. It is one thing to be a finesse forward, it is another thing entirely to be a 6-foot 5 skill player.
“We talk about examples. He wants to be stronger on the puck,” Julien said. “That the fancy dangling can’t always get you where you want to and can sometimes get you in more trouble than it can help.”
Part of winning battles in the corner is the ability to have a bit of mean streak. Yet, when it comes to pugilistic talent, Wheeler is a touch lacking. He is the poster boy for mild-mannered midwestern hockey skill players. He knows that he should be more physical and it is evident that he is making an effort, but ultimately the big hit and wide frame probably will be a secondary part of his game. Wheeler has been working on his decision-making and keeping things simpler this year.
“I think you can always improve your decision-making on the ice. Sometimes I try to do too much with the puck," Wheeler said. "Keeping things simple — you know, just making sure you get the puck out of the zone, in the zone. Those are the areas that you need to be really good at, if you don’t they are going to hurt you. Those are the areas that I think I need to improve on.”
An excellent example of Wheeler’s effort in this part of his game came on Feb. 7 in Montreal. Wheeler got tangled with Montreal’s Ryan O’Byrne in the corner, took exception to the defenseman’s shot and decided to drop the gloves. Wheeler circled around O’Bryne for a few seconds, sizing up his attack, and threw a few wild punches before O’Bryne grabbed him and tackled him to the ice. It was a pathetic attempt at a fight but still much appreciated by the team.
“He took on a guy who does it every once in a while, he didn’t hesitate,” Julien told reporters the next day. “The thing I like about it was that it showed players were willing to get out of their comfort zone and was going to show everybody they were willing to do something like that to turn things around. It was the intention for me that was impressive.”
Wheeler still is evolving. In his rookie season, he started out gangbusters. Yet, like most college products in their first NHL year, Wheeler hit the wall to the point where he was scratched by Julien on March 8 and again in the final games of the playoff series against the Hurricanes. The regular-season scratch was to give the rookie some time to observe the game without feeling the pressure of being in it.
“I think he is much better this year in protecting the puck,” Julien said. “I think so far you have seen a more consistent player where last year he had a great start and then hit a wall and was a totally different player. It is just maturing, experience in the league, and that is all we can ask for.”
This year Wheeler has learned what it takes to make it through a full professional season. From getting rest to eating right, Wheeler wants to make sure he is productive through March and April to help the Bruins climb back into the playoffs.
“I am actually feeling better as the year has gone on this year. I learned a lot last year about the things I need to do to make myself stronger at the end of the year,” Wheeler said. "It is about eating good, staying on top of your nutrition. Little things like that that might seem mundane but are really important, especially at the end of the year. You know, just taking care of those little things.”
The growth of Wheeler is important to the Bruins' short- and long-term future. He has the body and the talent to be an ascendant scorer in the NHL. Now, it is time for him to go out and prove it.
“I think my game has really evolved since I came into the league,” Wheeler said. “You learn a lot of different things that you need to do on the ice to be a successful player, and I am learning on the job the different types of things that you need to do out there, and I think this year I have definitely transformed myself into a more complete player, and that is something that I wanted to do coming into the season. So, it has been good so far.”