Boston, MA -
|Boston Bruins rookie Blake Wheeler skates with the puck during the first full day of the NHL hockey team's training camp in Boston on Saturday, Sept. 20, 2008. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson) |
With so many veteran players returning to the Boston Bruins this season – and many more young players with some NHL experience under their belt coming to camp – it's safe to say the rookies in Boston had their work cut out for themselves when it comes to making this year's team.
They've all put up a fight, but it's Blake Wheeler who has turned the most heads.
"All you can do is just go out every day and do your best," said Wheeler after Saturday night's pre-season loss against the Washington Capitals. "I'm willing to work hard, be a tough guy to play against, and at the end of the day, if that's not good enough to make the team – well, they'd have a pretty good team.
"That's really the only thing on my mind."
After being drafted in 2004 and spending the last three seasons with University of Minnesota, Wheeler became a free agent this summer, hoping to get a shot at the NHL. Now that he's got a contract, he realizes, "at the end of the day, there's really nothing to lose.
"As long as you go out and do your best and work hard, take care of things you need to take care of," Wheeler explained, "then you really can't have any regrets."
Even before Saturday night's game, during which the right winger contributed a goal and spent time on both the power play and the penalty kill, B's head coach Claude Julien was impressed.
"Wheeler's been one of those guys that has been very impressive and seems to be getting better every game he plays," he said.
Especially helpful on both sides of the puck is Wheeler's size.
"I've got a big body, so that helps a lot," he said. "When you stick your rear end out, it helps a ton.
"Guys have a hard time reaching around you, and when they do, it's going to be a penalty," he explained. "So you really just have to keep your body between the defender and the puck, and that makes it really tough."
And while his defensive game and his scoring numbers improved during his time with Minnesota, Wheeler's already realized it's a whole different game up here.
"The last few years, [our college league] had a bunch of guys who went out and played in the NHL," he explained, "but [in the NHL], through four lines, you've got guys like that, so things are going to be a little bit faster…guys are a little older and stronger.
"You just have to be at your 'A-game' every game; you can never take a shift off."
Wheeler's new teammates have also noticed the rookie's determination.
"He didn't go fifth overall in the draft by accident," said Shawn Thornton
after Saturday's game.Patrice Bergeron
, one of Wheeler's linemates on Saturday, is happy with how things have worked out.
"He's a big guy out there, and he's very smart with the puck," Bergeron said. "It felt good playing with him.
"It doesn't seem like he's young; it seems like he's a veteran out there."
With the competition for every spot as tight as it is, and last cuts looming, Wheeler's veteran air may be what stands out.
And if Coach Julien thinks Wheeler's good for the job, he's going to make sure he gets it, salary cap numbers aside.
"I know how to fight for a player I believe in," said Julien. "If I think he's deserving, I'll put my 10 cents in."