Blake Wheeler; Or, The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Jonathan Willis
March 22 2012 10:46AM

Last season, the Winnipeg Jets were still the Atlanta Thrashers, being run by general manager Rick Dudley. Dudley got a four-year contract extension, than promptly lost his job when the Thrashers relocated to Winnipeg and became the Jets.

Even so, Dudley’s decisions – and one in particular – continue to impact the team.

Dudley is now an executive with the Toronto Maple Leafs. I wrote a long piece profiling him here, and came to the following conclusion:

Dudley’s a solid hockey man. If a team’s looking for an old-school G.M., there really aren’t a lot of guys out there better qualified. I wouldn’t hire him, because I disagree with him philosophically [note: Dudley’s not a big believer in statistical analysis] but despite those differences I don’t for a moment doubt that he’s a solid judge of talent or a man capable of running an NHL team well. He’s a high-level candidate for any vacant G.M. position.

Travel back, for a moment, to February of 2011. The Thrashers and their long-suffering fan-base were in the midst of a disappointing season, but the playoffs were not out of sight. Atlanta sits four points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, with 23 games left to play. There’s undoubtedly a temptation to add players at the deadline, to try and push for that playoff spot. This is especially true given Atlanta’s tenuous financial situation.

Dudley chooses not to do that. His team isn’t entirely out of it, but given their minus-22 goal differential on the season, the odds are good their record isn’t truly reflective of the team’s talent, and the club probably won’t be making up a lot of ground in the playoff race.

Instead, Dudley makes a deal with the primary focus on the future, sending away centre Rich Peverley (a two-way player on a team already incredibly shallow up the middle) and “prospect” Boris Valabik for Blake Wheeler and Mark Stuart. Wheeler undoubtedly has the best upside of the group, but Peverley is playing heavy minutes in all situations and the Thrashers can ill afford to lose him. Peverley goes on to play important minutes for the Bruins en route to a Stanley Cup victory; Wheeler explodes offensively but the Thrashers finish the season 9-12-2, well out of the playoffs.

Fast-forward one season. Peverley’s still playing well – and showing a surprising amount of offense in a depth role – for the Bruins. Boston undoubtedly has no regrets about that deal, even if Boris Valabik has already been flushed out of the system. Wheeler, however, has emerged as the Jets’ leading scorer, and one of the NHL’s most prolific players at even-strength. With 45 even-strength points, Wheeler finds himself ranked 27th overall among NHL forwards in 5-on-5 offense, ahead of guys like Ilya Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, Daniel Sedin and Eric Staal. Also on that list is former teammate Milan Lucic, a player Wheeler was stuck behind in Boston.

To be sure, there are caveats. Claude Noel has made a lot of Wheeler’s offensive success possible – starting him tons in the offensive zone, keeping him away from the best opponents and the like. But Wheeler has rewarded him with excellent production, and thanks to Rick Dudley the Jets have a player that nearly every team in the NHL is looking for: a big guy who can score.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#1 The Keystone Garter
March 22 2012, 02:11PM
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Wheeler can stick-handle at high speeds. This enables him to cut laterally past slower defenseman at get good angle shots. Intelligent shot selection. If I were the Jets I'd get more point shots in. The Jova-Ohl-Salo-Sopel and recent Wing teams used the point well and D is our strength. More shots with partial screens or wide for deflection. Shooting when a hint of chance of reboaund to driving forward or FW to the net for bobbled puck. When we played Cgy, Iginla was always driving to net and Wellwood didn't even get a shot when he was all alone with at least the slot free of Flames. He panicked a pass. Why I like M.Sheifele's offense. In 'Nam, I taught the locals to play just before we left and left their vital stats for VC. We used palm leaf mats covered in napalm for the ice, and banana peel skates. Every time a player high-branched someone, someone tossed grenades into the crowd. There was a lot of enthusiasm for the game initially. ...the point is, we won in 'Nam by shooting, shooting, shooting. Shooting our C.O.'s, everyone in the bunker....once in a while Wheeler will get nailed generating a shot, or pausing for a teammate to get a little rebound closer. Bend your knees!!

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#2 MC Hockey
March 22 2012, 04:36PM
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The Keystone Garter wrote:

Wheeler can stick-handle at high speeds. This enables him to cut laterally past slower defenseman at get good angle shots. Intelligent shot selection. If I were the Jets I'd get more point shots in. The Jova-Ohl-Salo-Sopel and recent Wing teams used the point well and D is our strength. More shots with partial screens or wide for deflection. Shooting when a hint of chance of reboaund to driving forward or FW to the net for bobbled puck. When we played Cgy, Iginla was always driving to net and Wellwood didn't even get a shot when he was all alone with at least the slot free of Flames. He panicked a pass. Why I like M.Sheifele's offense. In 'Nam, I taught the locals to play just before we left and left their vital stats for VC. We used palm leaf mats covered in napalm for the ice, and banana peel skates. Every time a player high-branched someone, someone tossed grenades into the crowd. There was a lot of enthusiasm for the game initially. ...the point is, we won in 'Nam by shooting, shooting, shooting. Shooting our C.O.'s, everyone in the bunker....once in a while Wheeler will get nailed generating a shot, or pausing for a teammate to get a little rebound closer. Bend your knees!!

Wow after a great article that was a confusing comment #1 by TKG. Anyways...it is clear that Wheeler has beena great pickup and was underrated by Boston in letting him go. However, Peverley has been surprisingly solid but everyone on a great team like Boston sees their play elevated by teammates. Wheeler makes his teammates better by contrast

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#3 The Keystone Garter
March 23 2012, 07:59PM
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Wow I was ready to break down the 1st rd of draft. Jets need scoring now and D later... Jets are too young to die for now.

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#4 The Keystone Garter
March 24 2012, 09:14PM
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Okay, I suggest tanking the season now after Preds loss; playing Mannino and a Goalie prospect at least once. Play lots of kids. In the Entry Draft I like in order: Ceci, Hertl, Koekkoek, T.Pearson...high-risk high reward. I like A.Zlobin for our 3rd rd pick. If the team can get the 7th overall pick it should be possible to trade down for two picks and get two of the above players (minus Ceci). One of them should work out offensively. If Oilers want to dance could trade our 1st rd and Enstrom for their first rd. They would have best PP in league when healthy, next yr. We'd get Yakubov, Grigerenko, or Forsberg. Then get a D in FA. Keep stockpiling 2013 picks and trying to synch long-term cheap contracts is a dynasty idea.

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#5 The Keystone Garter
March 25 2012, 12:31PM
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There are some decent UFAs. Main reason I was disappointed with NHL 2011 Xbox. At least with the cap on, a whole bunch of good 22-23 UFAs. Couldn't figure out how to configure controller. NHL '05 and lesser '06 for GC were the best AI. Couldn't setup difficulty for non-season mode and playoffs. Cheap blueline wrist shots, probably wrap-arounds, and cross slot one-timers. Computer got mean after a few goals or after you score. This year has Stoa and offensive Mullen. Like Coliaccovo or Woywitka. Stempniak and Fedotenko have past offense, the latter playoff proven. Montoya and Harding are good but so was Mason. Be nice to get Parise... There are about 20 decent 1st rounders. Be nice to trade for a 20th overall pick since weaker UFA class. The "Hawks's B.Connelly has a lot of offense and minus 5 in AHL if Chi wants their 2nd round pick back...

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#6 The Keystone Garter
March 25 2012, 12:45PM
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...and since likely no playoff hockey for Jets fans, I recommend the Windwaker's Savage Labyrinth as the best fight of all time and NHL 93, 94 and Blades of Steel as best 2P hockey. The Jets just didn't have enough goal scoring to ride out some injuries.

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#7 The Keystone Garter
March 27 2012, 10:09AM
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I just assumed Leksands was in the SEL; forget Forsberg and trading for anything but the Russians. For the Jets in need of future D and offense now: #3 Murray (a + on bad team). Dumba. Reilly. Ceci. All good PP D, needed with FWs like Stapleton on PP. #8 Hertl. Doing good in Cze *Elite* league. Bystrom (always overweight Swe D). Forsberg (when scouts say a player makes those around him better, is a potential leader). Collberg (great Int, y scouts question Grigorenko's consistency but not Collberg's reg season is beyond me). Terravainen. #13 Haven't scouted: Finn. Reinhart. Lindholm. Troupa. Pouliet. All lesser offensive D. #18 Galchenyuk. Not great on injury return. Girgensons. Faksa. Craig's list likes 'em.

That is 20. Be great to have picks #18-20 rather than rest of draft. I've learned those knee injuries can wipe you out. Didn't realize Pearson was 2 yrs older than class.

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#8 The Keystone Garter
March 29 2012, 10:29AM
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Koekkoek at #13. If Pearson has been playing on a line with Scheifele, make a good 2nd Rd pick. The Jets had Stapleton on PP recently. You need 6 healthy PP forwards. So 8 at a minimum and more if you use for PP defense. The advantage of prospects is they don't cost you much to see if they can play NHL PP. Probably Fedotenko could be a PP2 winger. Buff, Hainsey, Flood and probably Bogosian are a good top 4 D, but again if hurt will need a replacement. Oduya was too expensive with Antropov in no-trade contract. Good to have local but Fehr was expensive. Penner would be good to have for playoff run. It would be nice to have a defenseman a little crappier than Oduya who could still sub in as a top 4 when injuries. A $2-2.5M D. Clitsome is okay as number 6 with maybe upside. Thorburn was a minus early and then played even rest of year. Slater got some goals. Glass had bad stats. Continuity is good but if a player can be added like Versteeg...I like the value for Oduya. If the Jets make trades like that every so often they will eventually score a Versteeg in draft or trade. With weak UFA it will be hard to materially improve the team. Will age better to borderline playoffs. But maybe a poor man's Fla...signing a bunch of $2M UFAs is best. Don't want to be stuck with the last years of Kane-Burmistrov's contracts and some aging deadweight too. Safest is too sign 24-25 yr olds and younger UFAs if possible.

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#9 The Keystone Garter
March 30 2012, 09:53AM
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Enstrom and Buff are both #1 D. Hainsey is a 2-4. Flood 2-5. Bogosian 3-6. Clitsome 5-7. One of the top 5 seemed always out during the season. So is maybe a hole for a #4 or #5 D. Keep losing; 5 teams are one point back. D is good but leafs had $3.5M J.Finger in minors while no centres or good goalies. 2000 NJ won Cup hardly playing Souray or J.Smith.

Murray is having a good enough early playoff I'd put him as #3 and those three all above the pack for Jets trade purposes. Galchenyuk up to #13; 4pts in 4 games. Ceci and Hertl disappinting playoffs. I like Teravainen more than Collberg more than Forsberg. Frk is having a good enough playoffs to be #22. Because UFA looks weak, I like tanking season and trading for a 1st rounder or maybe early 2nd rd. Signing Coliacovo and Woywitka and trading Flood to Edm for their 2nd rounder seems good if you can get Frk or one of the projected 1st round D with that pick.

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