Wheeler arrived back in Boston on Thursday, and was on hand for Friday's captain's practice at Ristuccia Arena. He didn't skate, but he has been working out on the ice in his native Minnesota during an eventful summer that included getting married and agreeing to a new one-year, $2.2 million deal after an arbitration hearing.
Showing signs of the maturity that come from such major life events, Wheeler was candid about addressing the shortcomings in his game.
"I really look at the biggest thing for me is playing with more of an edge, being more physical," said Wheeler. "If I can bring that part of my game to a different level, it will definitely help me. For me, historically, whenever I play that way, the offensive numbers seem to go along with it. I'm not so much worried about that aspect of it. I know I can do those things. I know I can produce and score goals. But I think as long as I can make other parts of my game better, then those things will also get better."
At 6-foot-5, 208 pounds, Wheeler has the size to play the "bigger game" he recognizes he needs to play. That physical element, whether it be through forcing turnovers with hits on the forecheck or by winning battles along the boards, has been noticeably lacking in Wheeler's game in his first two years in Boston. And even with him averaging nearly 20 goals a season in that span, it's an inadequacy that he knows must be rectified.
"It's something I've looked at, just watching myself play and realizing that it's not all just about scoring goals and getting assists," said Wheeler. "I truly believe that if I can up my game in other areas, that those numbers are going to follow suit."
That's a message that coach Claude Julien and general manager Peter Chiarelli no doubt tried to get through to Wheeler in his exit interviews this spring and likely came up again during the arbitration hearing this summer, but Wheeler insists his desire for improvement is more a matter of self-motivation.
"It more comes from me," said Wheeler. "I've just kind of looked at myself and seen where I'm good and where I'm not so good. Everyone in this locker room has strengths and weaknesses, so it's all about trying to level that playing field a little bit. If I can just make myself a little better in those areas, then I feel confident in where my game can go. It's one thing to talk about it and another thing to do it, so I'm hoping to do that right from the get-go and get off on the right foot."
That would be a big improvement over last year, when both the Bruins as a team and Wheeler individually struggled to find consistent success all season.
"It was just a long year," said Wheeler. "As a team we had so many ups and downs. It was just kind of a season-long frustration, team-wise, personally, you name it. There were a number of games where you'd come out and I'd feel like I couldn't have played better, I couldn't have had more scoring chances, but you have nothing to show for it. It was frustrating from that standpoint."
Things only got worse in the playoffs, where Wheeler managed just one goal in 13 games and the Bruins blew a 3-0 lead against Philadelphia in the second round.
"It was super hard, especially having to watch other teams still playing when we felt we should be there," said Wheeler. "That's always the hardest part, then once a champion is crowned you kind of distance yourself from it. It's hard to get over that. It definitely stung a lot last year and it still stings. But I think it gives everyone a great deal of motivation coming into the year to get that bad taste out of our mouth and start on the right note."
While the spring ended in disappointing fashion, Wheeler at least was able to enjoy the summer with his wedding, a honeymoon in Hawaii and finally a resolution to his contract situation after arbitration. Now he's looking forward to an even better fall.
"I'm really happy everything shook out the way it did," said Wheeler. "I've just been really excited this last month or so after everything got over with to get back into good shape and get out here. I'm really excited to finally be back."
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