Wheeler improving for the present, as well as the future

Wheeler has three goals and two assists in five games this season.

by C.J. Spang

In his junior year of high school, Blake Wheeler scored 100 points in 31 games while leading Breck School to the 2004 Minnesota Class A State Championship.

That summer, the Phoenix Coyotes shocked him and the rest of the hockey world by selecting the 17-year-old fifth overall in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.

The following year, Wheeler led the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League in scoring, and made the USHL All-Star team and the All-Rookie team.

But last year, as a freshman at Minnesota, Wheeler didn’t dominate like earlier in his career. The forward scored nine goals and tallied 14 assists in 39 games, the eighth-highest scorer on the team and the third-highest freshman scorer.

However, Wheeler looks at last season as a learning year rather than a disappointment.

“It really showed me the things I needed to work on and the things I needed to change in my game if I wanted to take my game to the next level,” he said. “I’m fortunate to have that happen early on when you learn what you need to do to get better and kind of learn that your old habits maybe aren’t working as well.”

That learning year is common for freshman, according to junior forward Ben Gordon, who didn’t score a goal his freshman year but became a key contributor last year.

Gordon, who has played on the same line as Wheeler both last year and this year, said Wheeler is only getting better.

“He’s a big forward, which plays to his advantage,” Gordon said. “He’s kind of the total package. (He’s) a big, strong player and he can also see the rink and he’s got good hands that can make plays too.”

Using his 6-foot 4-inch, 215-pound frame to his advantage was the biggest thing the coaches wanted Wheeler to improve.

And not only will Wheeler be looked upon to play bigger this season, but he’s also playing a new position – center.

Last spring, coach Don Lucia said he mentioned to Wheeler that he may experiment with him at center in case Phil Kessel decided to turn pro.

When Kessel did turn pro, the Gophers needed centers in a hurry and Wheeler was one of their choices.

Through five games, Wheeler has three goals and two assists and has won exactly 50 percent of faceoffs he’s taken, so the experiment looks as though it’s something permanent, and that’s something the sophomore is excited about.

“I was pumped up because playing center is a lot responsibility and it’s kind of flattering to have (the coaches) put that kind of responsibility on your shoulders,” he said.

Wheeler also said the switch to center makes him more versatile than before, which will allow him to play any of the forward positions in the NHL.

But Tom Kurvers, the director of player personnel for the Coyotes, isn’t sure where Wheeler will play once he turns pro.

“This is a good chance for us to see him in a different spot,” he said. “It may be where he plays the rest of his life, we’re not sure.”

Kurvers said he keeps in touch with Minnesota assistant coach John Hill to monitor Wheeler’s progress.

When Hill is coaching Wheeler, he said he keeps both the present and the future in mind.

“I think he has the tools to emerge and develop into a player that’s got the abilities to put up some numbers in the NHL offensively,” he said. “I think that if Blake can learn to become a physical presence, I think what you’re going to have is a power wing or a center that can be depended upon at both ends of the ice.”

That type of coaching gives Kurvers a good impression of the Gophers coaching staff.

“I like the way that they’re handling him,” Kurvers said. “I like the way that they’re pushing him and making it clear that he’s being depended on for their success this year.”

The amount of success Wheeler and Minnesota have this season could be a determining factor when Wheeler is considering the leap to the professional ranks.

But in a day and age when many college players are leaving school early for the pros, Wheeler isn’t setting a timetable.

“When I’m in that position (to decide), hopefully I’ll feel strongly one way or another,” he said. “Hopefully I’ll feel I’m mentally and physically ready to make that jump and then it’ll be a really easy decision.”