November 29, 2006 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Team of the Week: Minnesota

Sophomore Wheeler's Game Takes Big Leap Forward, Helps Gophers to Roaring Start

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

Minnesota's sweep last weekend in the College Hockey Showcase was the product of a lot of cogs coming together, as they have been for most of the season so far.

The result, a 5-4 win over Michigan State and an 8-2 thrashing of Michigan, earned the Gophers, the nation's clear-cut top-ranked team after a 14-game unbeaten streak, their first CHN Team of the Week Award for this season.

Among those taking his game to a new level is sophomore Blake Wheeler. All eyes have been upon Wheeler since he was a surprise No. 5 overall pick in the 2004 NHL draft by the Phoenix Coyotes. A Minnesota high school player who still hadn't put in his time in the USHL was standing on the podium with Wayne Gretzky.

Sophomore Blake Wheeler has made big strides this season, and leads the Gophers in scoring.

Sophomore Blake Wheeler has made big strides this season, and leads the Gophers in scoring.

A year later, after a season in Green Bay in the USHL, Wheeler was part of a highly-touted class as Minnesota that included Phil Kessel, Ryan Stoa and Jeff Frazee. But Wheeler had trouble adjusting last season, and his struggles were emblematic of what eventually did in the Gophers, as they lost in the NCAAs to Holy Cross in what went down as the biggest upset in college hockey tournament history.

This season, things have changed. And that's in no small part to the self-recognition that Wheeler made, and his willingness to accept his own flaws and work on them. Wheeler watched tape with the assistant coaches, who pointed out ways that a big man needs to play, where he needs to be, and so on. Tomas Holmstrom of Detroit, and Ryan Smyth of Edmonton, were two NHL players that Wheeler studied.

"I had to redefine the way I played," Wheeler said. "(Last year) I hung out in no-man's land. They were frustrated that I was a big body and I was standing out on the perimeter. I tried to work on that in the offseason.

"I was used to playing a different style, and I developed some bad habits growing up. I'm not taking anything away from high school hockey, but you can get away with stuff there. That was part of it, breaking bad habits."

After last season, a lot of things changed, starting with the loss of three, major high-scoring forwards to early departure — Phil Kessel, Ryan Potulny and Danny Irmen. The new class, as always for the Gophers, was extraordinarily talented, featuring the top overall pick in the draft and the No. 7 (Erik Johnson and Kyle Okposo), but it was only natural to expect a transition.

"It was a little scary this spring when those guys were dropping like flies and all leaving us," Wheeler said. "Coach (Don Lucia) might've even had some doubts about that — he didn't know how many goal scorers we had. But so far, so good. We're finding different ways to score goals this year."

What happened, though, is that the makeup of the team seems to have been just what the doctor ordered. Taking nothing away from last year's group, the current chemistry seems more lunch-pail, and it's smoothed out whatever early-season struggles could've been expected.

"When you're used to scoring the goals that aren't as pretty, when it comes to March, the pretty goals are tougher to score," Wheeler said. "If you're playing (gritty) and playing hard, the puck squirts on your stick. Against Holy Cross, we were 0-for-whatever on the power play, and we couldn't score any other way."

Meanwhile, Wheeler is trying to carry the water for the "greatest class ever."

"I think the greatest class ever walked out the door when Phil signed," Wheeler quipped, though he chuckled when it was pointed out that the class that was left behind is no chopped liver.

Wheeler also has his own expectations to live up, as the No. 5 overall pick. But luckily for him, Phoenix made the pick knowing that it was going to take time. The Coyotes have never pressured him, leaving him the space to figure it all out, and grow into his natural athletic talents.

"It was a cool experience at the time, but I've gotten past it," Wheeler said. "A lot of guys that get drafted high don't play in the NHL. I have to use that as a motivation. ... When I was drafted, I was playing Class A high school hockey in Minnesota. I have to take that into account when thinking about a timetable.

"(Gretzky) called me when I was in Green Bay. I was off to a bad start. I was not having the kind of success I was used to. It was five games in. He said it was all part of developing and not the end of the world — you'll get where you need to be. I think I had two goals that night. It was nice to hear that from him, (that) even the best player in the world has his bad days."

And Wheeler hasn't forgotten Green Bay, either, for being part of the experience, and credited former Harvard coach Mark Mazzoleni — now head coach of the Gamblers — with assisting in his progress.

"I grew up a lot out there," Wheeler said. "The challenges of playing hockey — there's more players than just in Minnesota. ... (Mazzoleni) did a great job with our team. ... And he did a great job with me too. I don't know if his style was an offensive type, but he let me have all the offensive freedom and he never criticized me for trying to make a play."

All of this has come together and paid off. Playing with Ben Gordon and tiny firebrand freshman Jay Barriball, Wheeler leads the team with 18 points, including nine goals, one behind Okposo for the team lead. Wheeler had nine goals all of last season, and just 23 points.

"It's playing with more intensity, and as I do that, more hits will come," Wheeler said. "I find myself in the area to score more goals too. I was not in the spots I needed to be (last year). It was (needing to move) my feet to be in those spots. It all kind of relates to each other."

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