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City fans a big plus for Wheeler

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Six months ago Blake Wheeler was a Boston Bruin. Then came a trade to Atlanta and a franchise relocation to Winnipeg.

The end result? That’s a whole lot of moving and living out of boxes for a guy while wondering where his future in hockey lies.

Enter the Winnipeg Jets – specifically GM Kevin Cheveldayoff – who on Monday made official a new two-year contract worth $5.1 million that will give the 24-year-old Minnesotan some stability and a sense of belonging.

And they also made next month’s scheduled salary-arbitration hearing – he was a restricted free agent and the two sides would have had to argue their case before an arbitrator – irrelevant.

Good thing, that.

"(Arbitration) is a great thing to have as a player, it gives you that extra leverage," said Wheeler in a conference call.  "There’s no question we’re fortunate to have that right but, at the same time, it’s never the most comfortable thing sitting in the room with your employer hearing maybe not the nicest things about yourself.

"It’s definitely nice to start off on a really good foot with these guys. I’m excited that it was done in a timely fashion and I think both sides are happy with how it turned out."

In Wheeler the Jets get a 6-5, 210-pound winger who spent time on the Thrashers’ top line last winter after his trade from Boston. The Robbinsdale, Minn. product starred at the University of Minnesota before turning pro with the Bruins and is hoping to build on his rookie campaign in 2008-09 when he put up the best numbers of his career with 21 goals and 24 assists.

Wheeler had 18 goals and 26 assists split between Boston and Atlanta last year, but was productive after arriving in Georgia with increased ice time. With the Thrashers Wheeler had seven goals and 10 assists in 23 games.

"Given that added role I'm definitely looking forward to building on what I did in Atlanta last year," said Wheeler. "I don't really set any barriers or goals, but I definitely want to eclipse my totals from last year. That's obviously a goal of mine. At the same time, it's all about fitting into the team structure and getting those wins. That's the biggest thing: I want to be able to contribute to wins every night and I think there's definitely different ways to do that.

"That’s my biggest goal, just to be productive in the minutes I’m out there and really earn the minutes when I’m on the ice."

And the chance to do it in front of a packed house every night is also enticing.

"You want to play in front of a lot of fans, there’s no question about that," Wheeler said. "There’s really nothing better than knowing every night you’re going to have a good support system in front of you and they’re going to be cheering you on in good times and in bad. Certainly, that was really one of the exciting things for everyone when we knew we were moving to Winnipeg: we knew what we were going to get and that the fan base up there was excited to have us. They showed that by selling out those season tickets in just a few minutes. That right there, that solidifies that this is probably the right move to go up to Winnipeg.

"It’s too bad it didn’t work out in Atlanta, but we’re really excited about this new opportunity for us."

Ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca

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