Will Blake Wheeler avoid the "Sophomore Slump"?
By Steve Mez August 9, 2009
I remember sitting down to watch the NHL Draft on June 26, 2004, and with beer in hand and my hefty notebook, I watched as the Washington Captials come to the podium to select Alexander Ovechkin; and the names continued to follow...Malkin, Barker, Ladd.
Then I was shocked at what happened next. The Great One and his staff walked to the podium, and selected Blake Wheeler, a high school player from Minneapolis who attended Breck, an independent college-preparatory school in Golden Valley, Minnesota.. Most hockey draft guru's had wheeler projected as a second-round or late first-round pick.
I was very surprised at the selection of wheeler, as were most of the experts, but then again...who are we to question a selection by the Great One, who in his own right, was quite the métier in his playing days? Obviously, Gretzky and his staff saw something the rest of us did not.
After 45 goals and 55 assists in his junior year of high school, Wheeler opted to join the USHL and played one season for the Green Bay Gamblers. Then he entered college at the University of Minnesota and played along side future Bruins teammate Phil Kessel. He had a stellar collegiate career in which he scored the game-winning goal in a National Championship game and became an alternate captain in the 2007-2008 season.
After four years, he was unable to come to a contract agreement wth the Coyotes and, even though he was offered an incredible entry level offer, Wheeler used his option to become an unrestricted free agent. With over 20 NHL teams pitching offers at the hulking, talented forward, Wheeler narrowed his options down to four teams, three of which were the Rangers, Canadiens and Bruins.
No doubt, after a few conversations with his old college teammate Phil Kessel, Wheeler chose the Boston Bruins and a deal became official on July 1, 2008.
Wheeler played so well, the Bruins kept him his entire rookie season, never once sending him to the AHL. His NHL career began with some fire, scoring his first NHL goal in his first NHL game against the Colorado Avalanche and victimizing Peter Budaj in his first of 21 tallies. It is noted that Wheeler's first NHL goal came with an assist by David Krejci, who was the Bruins' second-round selection in 2004.
With his play improving every game, Wheeler switched jersey numbers, taking 26 after starting the season wearing 42. In his first game with his new number, Wheeler potted his frst NHL hat trick.
Wheeler also went to play in the NHL "Youngstars" game, where he was named game MVP after scoring four goals and adding an assist.
However, it could be possible that the rigors of the long NHL season took it's toll on him, as there was a noticeable drop-off in point production in the second half of the season. At one point he was given a game off as a "day of rest and observation" in which Wheeler watched the following game from the press box.
His mind and body perhaps not where they should have been. Wheeler began to slow down, going pointless in the Bruins' eight postseason games, not for a lack of effort though, as wheeler gave his all on every shift.
In today's NHL, the fact that Wheeler played in 81 games during his rookie season is remarkable. Wheeler finished his rookie season with 21 goals and 24 assists for a total of 45 points and a +36 rating, which is good enough to be ranked second in the league and tops among all rookies.
Keeping in mind that he has a monster frame listed as 6'5" and 205 pounds, he only racked up 46 minutes in penalties, using his size to gain open-ice advantage and an advantage in front of the net rather than sitting in the sin bin. Rumors also has it that Wheeler has also added seven more pounds of bulk to his body, while staying at just five percent body fat.
I don't think Wheeler had a fighting major in his first year. He may surely add some bulk before the next season arrives.
What will we see from Wheeler in his second NHL season? Wheeler has shown the ability to gain steam at every level he has played, and I don't see him slowing down at all in his second year. He will be just 23 years of age going into his sophmore year and not even close to his hockey prime. My prediction is that Wheeler will be more prepared for the long 82-game marathon, and he will hit a 30-goal, 30-assist mark.
If he can manage to turn a 45-point season into a 60-point season, the Bruins and alot of their fans will be very satisfied. In just 52 more days, we will start to find out.
Can he do it? Will he do it?
The answer to both is: YES!