Junior winger Blake Wheeler has left the University of Minnesota Gopher hockey team for greener pastures.
Wheeler, whose draft rights are owned by the Phoenix Coyotes, could join former Gopher Keith Ballard and one-time future Gopher Peter Mueller, as well as this year's Hobey Baker award winner Kevin Porter and Wisconsin freshman phenom Kyle Turris, all of whom have already signed with the Coyotes.
Wheeler's decision to leave the team after his junior year could mean meager offensive numbers next year for the Maroon and Gold. Despite a disappointing season scoring-wise for Wheeler, he still led the team in both goals (15) and assists (20).
In fact, the Gophers stand to lose their top three point getters from this past season, and four of the top five. Ben Gordon, Mike Howe and Derek Peltier will be exiting the program along with Wheeler. Gordon, Howe and Peltier were all seniors last season.
Where does that leave the Gophers in terms of offensive output for the 2008-2009 season? They'll have to rely heavily on the man between the pipes, and hope that someone in the Maroon and Gold can light the lamp.
Alex Kangas keyed the stretch run for the Gophers in 2008, and he will need to continue to be solid for the Gophers to rise to the top of the WCHA conference next year. The healthy return of senior forward Ryan Stoa, injured in the second game of the season against Michigan, will also prove crucial for this relatively inexperienced Gopher squad, which will only carry three seniors next season.
Look for Jay Barriball and Mike Hoeffel to pick up the slack on the offensive side of the puck, and don't be surprised to see incoming freshmen Jordan Schroeder and Aaron Ness contribute as well. Ness, a defenseman and Minnesota's Mr. Hockey award winner in 2008 (the best high school hockey player in the state), should factor on the power play for the Gophers.
Wheeler will be remembered for his highlight-reel goal to win the WCHA Final Five playoff championship in overtime against the North Dakota Fighting Sioux. A video link to the goal is provided here:
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