By: Chad Lynch
When the Phoenix Coyotes selected Blake Wheeler with the fifth overall selection in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, many NHL experts were surprised with the selection. Wheeler, who at the time was ranked 17th among all North American skaters, was thought by many to be a solid late first round choice, but the Coyotes saw something more.
"When you are selecting a player fifth overall, you had better be looking for an impact player," said Barnett. "Ideally, the player you take in that spot will have the ability to one day play on your first line and be someone who creates excitement and becomes a significant contributor to the club's success."
After being drafted as a junior in high school, Wheeler spent last season in the United States Hockey League (USHL) with the Green Bay Gamblers. As a member of the Gamblers, Wheeler immersed himself in the role of a true power forward en route to leading the club in goals (19), assists (28) and points (47).
"Last year really gave me a chance to mature as a player," said Wheeler. "I put on 20-25 pounds and played with a physical presence. I learned what I needed to do to make things happen and how to use my body to my advantage."
While it was rewarding to see Wheeler excel in the USHL, it was a crucial step in his development for him just to become comfortable with the elevated level of competition.
"It was big for several reasons," said Barnett. "He came out of the Draft as a 17-year-old kid and this was his first time away from home. We watched him in the first third of the season get his footing and transform from a kid just trying to find a comfort level to emerging as a dominant scorer in the league for the final third of the season."
Then in August, Wheeler was asked to participate in USA Hockey's Under-20 National Junior Evaluation Camp in Lake Placid, NY. The camp brought together the 43 best young American hockey players and gave Wheeler a taste of international competition.
"The camp was a great experience for a lot of reasons, but it allowed us (Team USA) the chance to play against out peers in Finland and Sweden and in a way see how we matched up. It was also a chance to learn more about the different styles of play that are used in other countries and that can only help our own development as players."
As an added bonus to the experience Wheeler gained in Lake Placid, NY, the camp also served as a wake up call to scouts and coaches everywhere as Wheeler again set himself apart from the field, registering four points (three goals and one assist) in the four game series.
"What everyone saw was the most elite group of U.S. born players in his age group and he again made himself stand out from the crowd," said Barnett. "It is exciting to watch because he is progressing right before our eyes and becoming the player this organization always believed he would become."
This season, Wheeler will take the next step in his development as he begins his freshman year of college at the University of Minnesota and a member of the Golden Gophers hockey team.
"Blake has shown everybody that he is ready for the next level of competition and the challenges that he will face at the University of Minnesota," said Barnett.
And while Wheeler is excited about the prospect of going to a major university, he is more dedicated than ever to find success on the ice.
"This is going to be a very special time for me," said Wheeler. "I have wanted to play at U of M for a long time and we have a very good team that can accomplish something special this season and in the seasons to come."
With the rapid and impressive progress that Wheeler has made over the last year alone, it is easy to wonder when Wheeler will be trading in the snow packed winters of Minnesota for the hot sun of Arizona.
"We are just taking this year by year," said Barnett. "We want to be very cautious of rushing Blake into the professional ranks. He is a player that we project can one day be an elite offensive talent in this league and there have been too many cases in NHL history of guys that were thrust into the spotlight too early and were forced into checking roles just to stay in the League. We want to give him (Blake) every opportunity to be successful and gain the confidence he will need when he does join the NHL."
Once considered a conservative first round draft choice by many, Wheeler is now seen as not only one of the best young hockey players in the United States, but as one of the top prospects in hockey. His age, size, talent and character have scouts and coaches everywhere wondering how it took them more than a year to see in Wheeler what Mike Barnett and the Coyotes scouting staff saw 13 months ago. This season, the Coyotes will again be watching and waiting for Wheeler as he continues his development and steps closer to the NHL.