The Winnipeg Jets' leading scorer since the team moved to Canada two years ago, forward Blake Wheeler had a few options at his disposal as he entered restricted free agency this summer. But after signing a six-year contract with the Jets on Friday that was worth $33.6 million, the 26-year-old made it clear that he never had any intention of leaving the team that acquired him from the Boston Bruins in a 2011 trade and immediately promoted him to its top line.
"For me, it was virtually a no-brainer. I sat down with my agent this spring. I looked him in the eyes and said 'this is where I want to be,'" Wheeler said in a conference call. "I believe we have what it takes to get to the next level. This is just part of that process. I really truly believe that great things are in store for this group."
Winnipeg's rabid hockey fans have embraced Wheeler and his teammates since Day One, but the club has failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs in each of its two seasons. In April, a season-long five-game win streak put the Jets in the thick of the Eastern Conference hunt, but Winnipeg closed the season 1-2-1 and finished four points out of a playoff spot.
This summer, the Jets looked to bolster their forward depth by acquiring Devin Setoguchi from the Minnesota Wild and Michael Frolik from the Chicago Blackhawks. Wheeler was particularly pleased with the moves.
"I think they're great additions. You have two guys who have proved they can provide offense," Wheeler said. "Frolik just won a Stanley Cup. You can never discount adding a Stanley Cup champion to your team. That is an instant boost right away. I'm really excited with what they bring to the table."
The Wheeler extension comes days after the Jets signed linemate Bryan Little to a five-year extension. The pair, combined with captain Andrew Ladd, have formed the Jets' top line the past two seasons, and Wheeler has flourished since being added to the trio. He leads the Jets in assists (69) and points (105) since the club relocated from Atlanta.
With his new contract, Wheeler was happy to repay the confidence the team has shown in him.
"I came in and was put on the top line with Little and Ladd. That was a huge vote of confidence right off the bat. That added ice time, that added responsibility was something I really wanted. It really gave me a shot of life," said Wheeler, who was happy to avoid salary arbitration with the club, a procedure that was scheduled to take place Monday. "I went to arbitration once with Boston. Having been through the process; it's not the best-case scenario, it's never fun to have to sit across a table from the people that are in charge and hear [certain] things. I'm thrilled to have avoided that process."
Finalizing the details of his new contract brought a close to an eventful week for Wheeler. Monday, the University of Minnesota product was invited to United States Olympic orientation camp, which will be held Aug. 26-27 at Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, Va. Wheeler previously represented his country at the 2011 World Championship in Slovakia and would love nothing more than to again wear stars and stripes at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
"It would be a huge honor. I'm honored already to be mentioned in this group and put myself in the mix," Wheeler said. "There's a wealth of talent and great hockey players. I think I can really help, playing on that big ice and utilize some of my attributes over there."
For the time being, Wheeler's primary focus was on bringing playoff hockey to Winnipeg for the first time since 1996. This summer was a potential turning point for the team, which hasn't won a playoff series since 1987. It started with the official move to the Western Conference and qualifying offers being extended to 13 restricted free agents, including Wheeler, Little and defenseman Zach Bogosian, who has yet to come to an agreement with Winnipeg.
With the next six years of Wheeler's career now accounted for, he is looking forward to reconnecting with teammates and getting ready for 2013-14.
"I kept in touch with a lot of my teammates. They were curious as to what was going on," Wheeler said. "I definitely talked to [Bogosian] and [Little]. We were all in the same boat, wanting to make Winnipeg our long-term home. Now that [Little] and I have accomplished that, hopefully [Bogosian] is soon to follow."
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