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X-factors: Blake Wheeler

08.25.10 at 6:00 am ET
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Each day this week, WEEI.com will be putting a player or position in the spotlight based on their ‘€œX-factor’€ status entering the season. So far, we’ve taken a look at Michael Ryder, as well as the goaltending position. Up next is a man who — fairly or unfairly — might have to win some fans back in winger Blake Wheeler following a streaky and up-and-down season.

Something’s being written about Blake Wheeler? This offseason? We know — given his arbitration case, Wheeler may have been the most blogged about Bruin this side of Tyler Seguin, so this one will stay away from the usual stuff. Unlike what seemed to be minute-by-minute updates of the whole arbitration process in Toronto last month, this will be more of a look at how Wheeler can be one of the offense’s top contributors or one of its bigger disappointments. For that reason, it’s impossible to keep Wheeler out of this series.

Wheeler is a similar case to Ryder in that he’s a winger who at times both underachieved and infuriated fans throughout the 2009-10 season. Unlike Ryder, Wheeler is not set to hit free agency following the coming season, but he is playing for a contract in that he’ll be restricted at the end of the season. The motivation is there for Wheeler to put up big numbers, but he seems motivated enough as he prepares for his third NHL season.

Wheeler’s value is as a scorer undoubtedly, but his lack of physicality left people with something to be desired. Factor in that he didn’t crack 20 goals (he chipped in 18) and the naysayers didn’t have much difficulty making an argument against a timid winger who had scoreless stretches of 15, 12, and nine games.

So will this be Wheeler’s breakout season? He’ll be 24 when the season starts and he’s armed with a 6-foot-5 frame that, if filled out and utilized, could serve as an advantage. Based on his offseason evaluations of himself, Wheeler doesn’t expect to warrant any complaints about toughness again.

‘€œI think for me it’€™s all about ‘€” especially on the forecheck ‘€” being more physical, more of a presence. I think I’€™ve gotten so focused on the offensive production and the numbers side of things, especially last year, where I think there’€™s definitely more ways to be a contributing factor out on the ice,’€ Wheeler said shortly after inking his deal. ‘€œIt’€™s just all about understanding your areas of strengths and your areas of weakness. I think if I can just 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. Sometimes it’€™s about less is more, and when you kind of take a step back from things, it’€™s a little bit easier to notice where you may be able to improve on things.’€

In addition to rounding out his game as a winger, he’s trying to do the same as a scorer. Wheeler said he spent the summer, in which he also got married, shooting pucks at a tarp to get himself more comfortable putting a “shot on net from really anywhere.”

So, as far as statistics go, what is realistic for Wheeler? If things fall into place nicely and the rest of the offense improve as much as it’s supposed to, it could be argued that a 25-30 goal season is more attainable for Wheeler than his doubters may let on. Then again, would it take 30 goals for Wheeler to be considered a success? Could 23 goals and a clear presence established physically make the season a big enough step in his development that the city of Boston would lobby for his return?

Should Wheeler go backwards for the second season in a row (he had a seven-point dropoff a season ago), it could be his last as a Bruin, but the youngster has too many good things going for him to think it could come to that.

Wheeler isn’t one of the big contracts that the team could still be looking into moving. At $2.2 million for the season, the Bruins have a young winger with massive potential in the fold for affordable money. Though it’s only easy to get caught up in a young player’s shortcomings, perhaps being overlooked may be Wheeler’s first statement year.

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