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Bruins notebook

Rookie a real Wheel man

He has right stuff from the left side

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / December 4, 2008
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WILMINGTON - In the last two games, Detroit's Ty Conklin and the Islanders' Joey MacDonald spotted nearly identical sights: 6-foot-5-inch, 205-pound Blake Wheeler floating into the offensive zone, hips opened and stick poised for one-timers.

Moments later, Conklin and MacDonald saw the puck jump off Wheeler's stick and land in the net.

Wheeler and linemates David Krejci and Michael Ryder have combined to be the Bruins' most dangerous offensive threesome of late. Wheeler has a goal in each of the last two wins. Krejci has at least 1 point in the last six games. Ryder potted two goals against the Islanders and added two assists against Detroit.

All of that production comes with a rookie playing an unfamiliar position.

Before this season, Wheeler had played mostly center and right wing. But with the Bruins having less depth on the left side, they auditioned the righthanded-shooting Wheeler on his off wing during training camp. Coaches and management liked what they saw and have shown no hesitation in showcasing the rookie as a left wing during the recent hot streak.

"I think it gives us a little more luxury in moving guys around," coach Claude Julien said. "At the beginning of the year, the question mark was whether we were going to keep him and where we were going to play him.

"There's not that many guys on our team that feel comfortable playing on their off side. We decided to experiment with [Wheeler] in the exhibition games, and that was the first time for him, too. He adjusted well and I think he's seeing the benefits with the one-timers. He shoots the puck pretty well when he's put in that position."

On both goals, Wheeler read the play to put himself in the right position. Last Friday, when Krejci crossed over the blue line with the puck, Wheeler opened his hips, rotated slightly to his right, and set up for the one-timer that he whistled past MacDonald.

The next night, after Ryder beat defenseman Andreas Lilja to create a two-on-one rush, Wheeler replicated his move, opening himself up for a one-timer past Conklin.

"When you're a righty and you're coming down that off side, you can get the shot off a lot quicker than when you're on your strong wing," Wheeler said. "You see guys like [Buffalo's] Thomas Vanek score a ton of goals like that. He's coming down the side and the goalie's not expecting the shot to come that quick. He just blows it over them."

Wheeler is second among NHL rookies with eight goals, trailing only Toronto's Mikhail Grabovski (10).

"At one point, when guys come into their first year of pro hockey and they've come out of Europe or college hockey playing 40 or 50 games at the most, the schedule is a little different," Julien said. "You always stay guarded as a coach and keep an eye on how he's handling it. Most players eventually hit a wall. You may see it with [Wheeler].

"Obviously, we hope not, but we may. I've just got to keep an eye on that. So far, he's handled this part of the schedule real good, which was a tough part. He's a big boy. Size and strength help, obviously. So far, so good."

On right track

Aaron Ward didn't travel yesterday to Tampa Bay for tonight's game against the Lightning, but the Bruins are encouraged by his progress. Ward, who was injured in the game against the Red Wings, has shed the walking boot from his left foot and has been working out off the ice.

"If things go well, he could be on the ice Sunday or Monday and ready to go again," said Julien. "It was definite that he wasn't going to play these next two games and wouldn't be able to skate until the beginning of next week.

"Things are going well in his case, and let's cross our fingers that things keep going that way."

Yesterday, Julien hadn't finalized whether Matt Lashoff or Johnny Boychuk will get the call tonight.

Morning decision

Marco Sturm, who practiced three times this week for the first time since missing six games because of a concussion, will find out after today's morning skate whether he'll return to action tonight. If Sturm plays, Petteri Nokelainen would most likely be the healthy scratch . . . Glen Murray's grievance hearing will take place in Toronto Dec. 16, not Jan. 17 as previously reported . . . Patrice Bergeron, Improper Bostonian's latest cover boy, was getting an earful from Shawn Thornton after practice. "Amazing how computers can make you look good," Thornton cracked . . . During shootout practice, Manny Fernandez jokingly let P.J. Axelsson know that he didn't appreciate the left wing's long, looping route to the net. Fernandez yelled something about a time limit as Axelsson skated away . . . Blake Kessel, Phil Kessel's younger brother, was named yesterday to Team USA's roster for the World Junior Championship. The younger Kessel is a freshman defenseman at the University of New Hampshire . . . Jamie Arniel, Boston's fourth-round pick in the 2008 draft, was one of 38 players invited to Team Canada's selection camp later this month.

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