by PuckStopsHere on 02/11/09 at 03:33 AM ET
Watching the rookie class to get a feel for the new players to the NHL is always interesting. It is fun and challenging to try to pick out the rookies who will have significant careers and those who are flashes in the pan who will soon disappear from the league. Often a rookie stands out as an interesting case who accomplishes something unusual for a player of his age. This makes him a player to watch because it is not so easy to find comparable players for his talents. It is those players who are most likely to become NHL stars, even if their rookie season does not put them in position to win the Calder Trophy.
One such rookie this season is Blake Wheeler of the Boston Bruins. He leads the NHL in +/- with a +32 ranking. That is quite impressive. Generally, the +/- leader is a player on a good team who is excelling in the role he plays on his team. Wheeler is no different. Boston is in first place in the NHL and Wheeler has been used in a protected role by the Bruins. He is tenth on the team among forwards in ice time per game (behind Marc Savard, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Phil Kessel, PJ Axelsson, Marco Sturm, Milan Lucic, Michael Ryder and Chuck Kobasew). Clearly he has been a success in that limited ice time.
Wheeler is the fourth highest scoring rookie in the NHL with 33 points (Kris Versteeg, Bobby Ryan and Patrik Berglund are ahead of him). He has significantly less ice time (per game) than the players ahead of him. Boston has been able to provide the luxury of a role where he is not pivotal to the team because of their depth, but it looks like Wheeler would be able to handle a bigger role successfully. He likely will be given one in the future and judging by his track record he should succeed.
If Wheeler played on a team that offered him 16 or 17 minutes of ice time per game, it is quite likely he would be among (if not the) top scoring rookie and be a much more serious player in the Calder Trophy race. Right now he looks like a somewhat forgotten player in a race that is led by Steve Mason.
Wheeler is 22 years old (which makes him slightly older for a rookie) and spent three years at the University of Minnesota. He was a first round pick of the Phoenix Coyotes in 2004. They Coyotes could not sign him and he became a free agent who signed in Boston. His 33 points are close to the 38 points which was his maximum output in the NCAA. It would be interesting to see him beat him NCAA record in his first NHL season (although with more games played).
Blake Wheeler is an interesting rookie. He leads the NHL in +/-. This shows that he is excelling in the role that the Boston Bruins have given him. The Bruins depth has allowed it to be a somewhat protected role, but he seems ready to become a more significant core player. If he had been given that chance this season, it is reasonable to think he would be considered a serious Calder Trophy candidate.
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