Blake Wheeler admits watching former teammates raise the Stanley Cup a month ago has given him a new perspective on his outlook as a member of the Winnipeg Jets.
Wheeler, who was traded by the Boston Bruins to the Atlanta Thrashers last February, avoided an arbitration hearing by signing a two-year contract by the Jets on Monday, reportedly worth $5.1 million.
"It was definitely a mixed bag, for sure (watching the Bruins win the Cup)," Wheeler said on a conference call Tuesday. "I wasn't necessarily cheering for them, but I wasn't cheering against them. I've played with all those guys so I was definitely happy to see them succeed and come through and win -- I knew they were definitely capable of it. But it definitely hurt to not be a part of it."
Now that a new deal has been consummated with Winnipeg, Wheeler not only has visions of helping the team qualify for the playoffs but eventually having his name engraved on the Stanley Cup.
"Unfortunately, (trades) are a part of sports so you just kind of take it with a grain of salt and move on," he said. "It definitely narrows your focus a little bit, though, seeing the guys you went to battle with for 2 1/2 years come away with the trophy. It makes you want to get your name on it, too, so that's the goal -- trying to turn this organization into one that can hopefully compete for one of those pretty soon."
Avoiding competing against his own organization in arbitration is something Wheeler said he's happy to avoid.
"(Salary arbitration) is a great thing to have as a player … it gives you that extra leverage and we're really fortunate to have that because it's a real sticking point in terms of negotiating," Wheeler said. "You feel fortunate to have that right but, at the same time, it's never the most comfortable thing. Based on the way they were talking, it sounded like we weren't going to have to go all the way through (with arbitration)."
The 24-year-old right wing joined the Thrashers organization, along with defenseman Mark Stuart, in a trade with the Boston Bruins on Feb. 28, in exchange for center Rich Peverley and defenseman Boris Valabik. Prior to the deal, Wheeler, who earned $2.2 million last season, had 11 goals, 27 points and 32 penalty minutes in 58 games with the Bruins.
He had 7 goals and 17 points in 23 games for Atlanta, including 3 goals and 8 points in the team's last 10 games.
"After the trade to Atlanta, I was given a bigger role and given more responsibility out there, and as a player that's what you want," Wheeler said. "I felt I did a good job with the opportunity and I'm really excited about getting a similar opportunity in the future. Hopefully I can build off the first few years of my career."
Wheeler ranked eighth on the Thrashers with 74 hits and 47 blocked shots and ninth with 40 takeaways last season. He averaged almost 19 minutes of playing time, mostly alongside center Bryan Little and Andrew Ladd. In 58 games with the Bruins in 2010-11, he averaged less than 16 minutes.
"I'm definitely looking forward to building on what I did in Atlanta (under coach Craig Ramsay)," he said. "I don't really set any goals because I definitely want to build off of what I did. I think I can eclipse my totals from last year, but at the same time it's all about staying in the team structure. At the end of the day, it's all about getting those wins … that's the biggest thing. I want to be able to contribute to wins every night and I think there are different ways to do that, but if you're playing in a role where you're getting those opportunities, you want to be productive."
The native of Robbinsdale, Minn., drafted fifth by the Phoenix Coyotes in the 2004 Entry Draft, has 57 goals and 70 assists in 244 career games spanning three NHL seasons.
Wheeler said he's looking forward to playing in front of the rabid fan base in Winnipeg. The team reached its goal of selling 13,000 season tickets just minutes after tickets went on sale to the general public.
"I think you want to play for the fans, no question about that," Wheeler said. "There's really nothing better than knowing every night you're going to have good fan support in front of you … cheering you on in the good times and the bad.
"We knew the fan base up there was definitely really excited to have us and they showed that by selling out those season tickets in minutes. That solidified the move to Winnipeg as the right move; it's too bad it didn't work out for Atlanta, but we're excited about the opportunity for us."
Wheeler is certain that the best is yet to come for the organization, whose roster averages 26.4 years of age.
"There's no reason why we can't (make the playoffs)," Wheeler said. "Look at where these guys were last season … they were in a really good spot to make the playoffs, but a tough 20-game stretch really knocked us back. Most of the pieces are in place for guys to step up and we were a really young team, so we can build a future. There's no reason why we can't compete for a playoff spot this year."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale