Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Sochi just what Wheels needs

Playing with best will make him better

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Most Winnipeg Jets fans will be cheering against Blake Wheeler and Team USA at the winter Olympics, but they should be applauding the opportunity for the continued development of one of their team's best players.

Wheeler has the skill and physical assets to be a star, but to this point in his career, that status has been elusive. Mostly because he's inconsistent. When he's on, Wheeler is a dangerous player and difficult to contain. When he's off, Wheeler can disappear completely.

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Opportunity

The opportunity to play at the Olympics with a collection of the greatest players in the world will give Wheeler a chance to not only see how close he is to the top, but also to watch and learn from those around him.

Wheeler is not a top-50 player in the NHL right now. He could be, and some might argue he should be. The 27-year-old Wheeler's best offensive season to date saw him collect 64 points for the Jets in 2011-12. His top goal-scoring season was his rookie campaign with the Boston Bruins when he potted 21 in 2008-09.

The upside for Wheeler is great and Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff locked him up for six seasons last summer with a yearly cap hit of $5.6 million. Wheeler should be a point-a-game man and if he can develop into a player that repeatedly hits the 70- to 80-point mark, Cheveldayoff will have hit a home run.

If Wheeler can ever unlock the formula that allows him to bring his best game on a more consistent basis, he'll be dominant and take the Winnipeg Jets closer to where they want to go. Playing and living with his country's elite during the Olympic tournament will provide Wheeler with a fresh perspective. To wit, how the big boys do it.

Bringing that knowledge back to North America and capitalizing on it over an 82-game NHL schedule would take Wheeler to an entirely different level. Can he do it? Who knows, but getting the call to play for the U.S. gives him an opportunity. What he does with it will be up to him.

Some believe Wheeler is done developing, but I'm not convinced, and there's evidence to suggest he can still grow.

The route to success for Wheeler isn't a great mystery. He needs to play close to the net and bring a physical element to the rink. When he skates on the perimeter he's half a player.

Critical

Heading into December, Wheeler had just five goals and was critical of his own play as well as that of his team's. He started playing in the hard areas and the goals started to follow. Wheeler popped 10 over the last month and recently his Jets have played their best hockey of the season.

"The last month, December, probably helped my case a little bit. If that's the reason I made the team, for my play recently, that's rewarding because it means you played your way on to the team," Wheeler told reporters in Ottawa on Thursday morning.

Rubbing shoulders with a group of players who insist on the best from themselves and those around them on a daily basis won't hurt. Back in the summer of 1987, Mario Lemieux was a scoring machine who had never played in an NHL playoff game. But a training camp and a tournament with Wayne Gretzky and the rest of Canada's best players of that day taught Lemieux a number of lessons.

Wheeler has the opportunity to absorb similar experiences from his Olympic peer group. The Jets haven't had the opportunity to call one of their own elite. Wheeler is inching closer to that status. Maybe the Olympics will be what he needs to cross that line.

gary.lawless@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @garylawless

see gary's updated team canada selections C2

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 3, 2014 C1

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About Gary Lawless

Gary Lawless is the Free Press sports columnist and co-host of the Hustler and Lawless show on TSN 1290 Winnipeg and www.winnipegfreepress.com
Lawless began covering sports as a rookie reporter at The Chronicle-Journal in Thunder Bay after graduating from journalism school at Durham College in Ontario.
After a Grey Cup winning stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the communications department, Lawless returned to Thunder Bay as sports editor.
In 1999 he joined the Free Press and after working on the night sports desk moved back into the field where he covered pro hockey, baseball and football beats prior to being named columnist.

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