The Canadiens/Bruins game on Wednesday night featured all the elements a hockey fan could ask for: a historic rivalry, a villain (Chara), and a third period comeback to win the game for the Bruins. One of the key elements of the comeback was Milan Lucic – he only had one assist on the night, but his physical presence created some key turnovers and helped his newly formed line with Tyler Seguin and David Krejci charge through to the win. Lucic is a Mack Truck who can stick handle. He is truly a beast and is the type of player other teams make personnel decisions around (Zac Kassian in Vancouver). When discussion is about prototypical power forwards in the NHL, Lucic’s name is at the top of the list.
Why isn’t fellow Boston draftee and current Jet Blake Wheeler’s(*Wheeler was drafted by Phoenix, not Boston, but was a prospect with Lucic in Boston- hat tip to commenter below) name up there as well? It may be in Winnipeg, but around the league, Wheeler doesn’t hold the same cache as Lucic. Wheeler is taller (6.05 versus 6.04), and he is a former first round pick (Lucic was a 2nd rounder in 2006). Watching Wheeler this season it is also clear he is a faster, more fluid skater – there are few big men who that skate as well. This isn’t to say that Wheeler isn’t viewed as a valuable asset league wide, there are 29 GM’s who would trade for him, but he doesn’t hold the same status as Lucic in hockey circles.
Comparing their careers, Lucic has been the more prolific goal scorer (92 in 368 GP vs 78 in 333 GP) and he was the key component in a Stanley Cup win. Offensively, Wheeler has been better than Lucic so far this season averaging a point per game, however, his underlying numbers aren’t as good as Lucic’s. Lucic’s Corsi/Rel of 10.7 is almost the mirror opposite of Wheeler’s -10.1. When Lucic is on the ice, far more pucks are being directed at the opponents net, where when Wheeler is on the ice in Winnipeg, the opposite is true. Again why?
For the answer, look no further than the unsophisticated and dreaded common stat of Penalty Minutes. For their careers, which are similar in games played, Lucic has 553 PIMs while Wheeler only has 200. Suggestive of, and is obvious to anyone who watches the game, of a player in Lucic who physically engages his opponents. When he is on the ice, his rivals are on their heels and their heads are on swivels. Lucic leads the Bruins with 37 hits already this season. Wheeler is far from leading the Jets with 16. For a 6.05 forward that isn’t good enough.
The difference between the two is that Lucic has developed a presence league-wide. Other players are aware when he is on the ice and he opens up the ice for his teammates. Historically, we’ve seen this type of phenomina with other players who have developed a rep and thereby opened the game up for themselves and their team. Even though he wasn’t a physical specimen when compared to either Lucic or Wheeler, in the 80’s other teams were aware when Mark Messier was up to bat; they had to be, or they may take an elbow to the teeth.
For those of you reading this who are thinking, "yeah, but Wheeler and Lucic aren’t the same kind of players," you are correct, they are not. That is the reason why despite not scoring at a higher rate than Wheeler this season, Lucic is much more valued around the NHL.
Can you imagine if Wheeler added a more physical element to his game? Skill-wise, he is superior to Lucic in every aspect. One only need to watch one game featuring both men to figure that out- so if Wheeler could grow his game to add a more physical dimension, the Jets would have one hell of a player.
**Since I mentiond the 80’s, here is today’s picture-