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Wheeler, Bruins avoided a fight in arbitration

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / July 31, 2010

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After marrying his longtime girlfriend this month and spending their honeymoon in Hawaii, Blake Wheeler was understandably nervous about returning to reality in as jarring a fashion as possible: Sitting in the same room as his employers, who’d spend 90 minutes arguing why the left wing was worth less than what he was asking.

“Before the hearing, I was anxious, obviously,’’ Wheeler said during a conference call yesterday. “You hear all the horror stories of different things that go on in those rooms. But once you’re in there hearing both sides being argued, it was handled extremely professionally. Nothing was said in the room that I didn’t already know myself. There were no low blows or anything like that taken by either side. It was handled extremely well. When the hearing was over, I felt great about it. I was really happy to be through that process.’’

Having elected for arbitration, however, Wheeler understood the process was part of the package — one that ultimately produced a $2.2 million award and a subsequent one-year contract that he signed yesterday.

“It is never a pleasant experience for either side to go to arbitration,’’ general manager Peter Chiarelli said in a statement. “However, as a manager, you know that the player will be under contract for the following year either way. We talked to Blake before and after the hearing and we are satisfied to have a good, young player under contract for another year.’’

During the hearing Tuesday, Matt Keator, Wheeler’s agent, highlighted some of his client’s assets: size (6 feet 5 inches, 208 pounds), production (83 points over his first two NHL seasons), and all-around game (2:04 average ice time per game on the power play last season, 1:10 on the penalty kill).

In turn, the Bruins made their case by pointing out shortcomings that Wheeler has heard often from his coaches in meetings and exit interviews.

“It’s all about, especially on the forecheck, being more physical and bringing more of a presence,’’ said Wheeler, who plays more of a skilled game than the power approach usually elected by forwards his size. “I think I’d gotten so focused on the offensive production and the numbers side of things, especially last year. There’s more ways to be a contributing factor out on the ice. It’s all about understanding your areas of strength and areas of weakness.

“If I can assert myself more physically, especially on the forecheck and things of that nature, it’s going to create a lot more opportunities for myself and the guys I’m playing with to get more offensive opportunities.’’

It’s unknown whether Wheeler, at this stage of his development, can become the heavy, gritty, strong-on-the-puck wing that coach Claude Julien prefers. Wheeler might ultimately be a better fit — and a more dangerous offensive presence — in a system that encourages up-and-down play and creative playmaking instead of Julien’s defense-first approach.

But in hopes of maturing into a more fearsome winger, Wheeler has been focusing this offseason on shooting pucks and extending his range. While linemate Michael Ryder has shown no hesitation in ripping off his deadly wristers from all angles, Wheeler hasn’t been as trigger happy.

“It’s about getting comfortable with shooting farther away from the net,’’ Wheeler said. “Any time you put a shot on net anywhere from the top of the circles in, it’s going to be a pretty good look. It’s getting that mentality and getting comfortable with letting the puck go like that. It should really help me. I think I’ve been more of a passer in my first two years. I’d like to close the gap. I think working on that will really help.’’

The Bruins, now over the $59.4 million salary cap, must still sign Tyler Seguin to a three-year entry-level contract, most likely for the $3.75 million ($900,000 base salary, plus $2.85 million in bonuses) maximum amount due to a 2010 draftee.

The Bruins do not have to be under the cap until the start of the regular season, and could address their crunch by placing Marco Sturm on long-term injured reserve. But they would prefer to clear space via trade or AHL assignments because LTIR is a temporary solution.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com.

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