Wheeler ready to mix it up
PRAGUE -- Blake Wheeler is in his third NHL season and looks as if he's ready to mix some grit into his tool kit. The 6-foot-5-inch winger has the size and speed to stick around for years, but ultimately he'll have to toughen up his game if he's going to evolve into a consistent, effective scorer.
"I'm trying to be more physical," Wheeler said here yesterday, prior to the Bruins rubbing out the Coyotes, 3-0, at O2 arena. "It's a big focus of my game right now, an area of my game that I can certainly improve upon. If I can get into guys' faces, it will make it easier for me and my linemates."
The soft-and-cushy Wheeler, who came to the Bruins as a free agent straight from the University of Minnesota, averaged roughly 20 goals and 42 points over his first two seasons. Not bad. Good enough, in fact, for him to score a $2.2 million arbitration decision over the summer. If he could apply a crustier edge, he might be able to improve those offensive numbers by 50 percent or more, especially if coach Claude Julien keeps him on a trio with Patrice Bergeron and Mark Recchi.
Wheeler was more aggressive in the season opener here on Saturday night. He didn't get into a fight or drill opposing forwards or defensemen through the wall, but he often had his elbows up in scrums and got his wide shoulders into the chests of some Coyotes. Irascible can go a long way in the NHL. If Wheeler keeps it up, he'll win valuable real estate in the offensive end, gaining more room to stickhandle and shoot. He'll never work his way into the Cam Neely category, but he can free himself from the Craig Janney sway of life.
"He was more physical," noted Julien, reviewing Wheeler's work on Saturday. "He finished his checks more than usual ... he stood up for himself. We've told him he has to be grittier in those areas, and he's started to show that."
Wheeler skated yesterday at right wing, still with Bergeron his center, but he shifted over to accommodate rookie Jordan Caron making his NHL debut at left wing. Caron played most of his junior hockey career on right side, but said here the other day that he finds left wing easier, especially for collecting passes in the neutral zone.
Recchi doesn't know if this will be his final NHL season, or if he's got another year or two before he retires. When the time comes, the Bruins' winger will head home to the Pittsburgh area and hopes to begin a new career aimed at one day working in an NHL team's front office.
"I'm more interested in something like that than, say, coaching," said Recchi, kiddingly added that he'll be asking Zdeno Chara for tickets to games by the time Chara is wrapping up the seven-year contract extension he agreed to here on Saturday. "I like the idea of team-building, so I'll see where that takes me."
To start out, said Recchi, he'd like to make Pittsburgh his home base and venture out as needed to help a team's prospects in the minor leagues -- similar to the role that ex-Bruin Tom Fitzgerald originally held in Pittsburgh. The affable Fitzgerald still helps with the Pens' prospects, but he already has moved up the management chain and now holds the title of assistant to general manager Ray Shero.
"I know I'd have a lot to learn," said Recchi. "But that's what I'd like to do, get in with a good organization and see where it goes."
Most any NHL club would be eager to add Recchi to the staff. Don't be surprised if Boston GM Peter Chiarelli finds a spot for him with the Bruins.
Starts and stops
The Maple Leafs Saturday improved their start to 2-0 with ex-Bruin Phil Kessel contributing his second goal of the new season. If they make it 3-0, Cup-starved Leaf fans (1967 and counting) might have to consider pulling their kids out of school for the full academic season, locking the doors, and gathering 'round the computer to stream NHL.com 24/7. GM Brian Burke to the Toronto Star over the weekend: "I do believe in terms of generating interest in selling tickets, you do need to have a star player, so there's no coincidence that Phil Kessel and Dion Phaneuf are here."... As of yesterday morning, the Penguins, Senators (5-1 losers to the Leafs on Saturday) and Ducks were the league's bottom feeders, all of them with 0-2-0 starts...The last time the Bruins stumbled to an 0-2-0 start: in 2005-'06, right out of the lockout, when they lost to the Habs, 2-1, and then the Sabres, 4-1. Within two months, they shipped team captain Joe Thornton to the San Jose Sharks. Jumbo Joe last week reacquired the 'C', some five years and 477 points since going to the west coast...The Bruins hurried out of the O2 to catch their charter flight back to Hanscom/Bedford, and were scheduled to stop in Iceland for refueling....Look for Brian McGrattan, still with a club on a tryout agreement, to ink a two-way deal any day now with the Bruins. If they don't get their scoring touch going, the Bruins will have to battle and brawl their way to a few points this season, and "Gratts"' muscle could come in handy ... Rookie Matt Bartkowski, who impressed in training camp, will head to Providence this week to begin his AHL tutoring...Peter Schaefer, bought out by the Bruins after spending the 2008-'09 season in Providence, is now with the Canucks, after joinining the Vancouver camp as an invited last month. He's now one of their bottom six forwards, after not playing in an NHL game since '07-'08.
Chara landed 7 of Boston's 37 shots...Michael Ryder picked up an assist on Tyler Seguin's first career goal, but landed only two shots on net in 13:15. He has to get that stick heated up...The two sides were dead even at the faceoff dot, but the Bruins had to enjoy at least a 60-40 advantage in terms of time spent in respective offensive zone...Milan Lucic, with his mom and dad in the crowd, ripped home his first goal of the season. He also wrapped up with Phoenix strong man Ed Jovanovski late in the third, but the two titans never traded a punch.