Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

More power to him

Could Wheeler become one of NHL's best big forwards?

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Blake WHEELER carries 210 pounds on his 6-foot-5 frame and has flashed a deft touch around the net that has the Winnipeg Jets intrigued enough to get his name scribbled on a new two-year contract.

The question now is: what kind of player can the 24-year-old product of Robbinsdale, Minn., morph into for this franchise?

Is he simply what you see right now -- a respectable 20-goal guy who has averaged 19 through the first three years of his career -- or can he develop into the kind of power forward NHL teams covet and this goal-starved franchise craves?

Over to you, Mr. Wheeler...

"I think I'm developing into the power forward I was projected to be when I was younger," said Wheeler, selected fifth overall by Phoenix in 2004, during a conference call from a vacation spot in Palm Beach, Fla. "I'm starting to learn how to use my size to my advantage a little bit more. There's definitely a learning curve... if I can use my size and my speed to my advantage then it makes playing against me a little bit tougher.

"I'm learning how to do that and having some success with it, especially during the later part of last year."

Yes, it could be argued that Wheeler's 23 games with the Atlanta Thrashers last year after being traded by the Boston Bruins were arguably the most effective in his three seasons in the NHL. With increased ice time and a spot on the Thrashers' top line, Wheeler scored seven times and added 10 assists.

That theory was put to Wheeler Tuesday when he was asked if his best is yet to come. Now, not surprisingly -- and especially after signing a deal worth $5.1 million -- Wheeler isn't going to suggest his game has plateaued, but he argued the formula here is pretty straightforward: more opportunity equals more offensive production.

"After the trade to Atlanta (from Boston last February) I was given a bigger role. I was given more responsibility out there and as a player that's what you want," he said. "I feel like I did a good job with that opportunity and I'm really excited about hopefully getting a similar opportunity in the future and building off the first few years of my career.

"Given that added role I'm definitely looking forward to building on what I did in Atlanta last year. I don't really set any barriers or goals, but I definitely want to eclipse my totals from last year. 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."

ed.tait@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: WFPEdTait

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 20, 2011 C1

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