Coyotes see “tremendous upside” in Wheeler

By Russell Brooks

The Phoenix Coyotes were questioned by many in the hockey world after selecting Minnesota high school star Blake Wheeler fifth overall in the 2004 NHL Draft, but Coyotes’ Managing Partner Wayne Gretzky sees tremendous upside in the 17-year-old.

“We really felt strongly as a collective group that obviously the first four guys that were drafted will play in the National Hockey League and will be a big influence on the NHL,” said Gretzky. “From there, we felt that there were a bunch of players that were kind of similar in as far as their upside and we just feel that this young man has tremendous upside.”

Not only do the Coyotes see tremendous upside in the first of 64 Americans selected in the 2004 Entry Draft, but they also see a great athlete.

The 6-foot-5, 200-pound forward had an outstanding season last year, leading the state in scoring with 100 points (45 goals, 55 assists) in 30 games. Wheeler also played tight end for Breck High School’s football team, collecting 50 receptions for 800 yards in his junior season. He won both the Minnesota State High School Hockey and Football championships last season, and was selected as the MVP for both championship teams.

“You don’t see players too often earn MVP honors in two different state championships for two different sports,” General Manager Mike Barnett told the Phoenix Coyotes web site.  “Blake accomplished that last year and we really think he’ll develop into a solid player for our franchise.”

The future appears bright for the Robbinsdale, Minnesota native. He was invited to the United States World Junior team tournament at age 17 and, after completing his senior year at Breck next year, will attend the University of Minnesota where prospects Keith Ballard, Jeff Taffe, and Eric Westrum evolved.

When asked if he was going to finish his senior year of high school or play junior hockey in the USHL (the Green Bay Gamblers hold his rights) or WHL (the Everett Silvertips have his rights), Wheeler was uncertain.

“That’s something I don’t even know yet. I’ll talk with the organization and we’ll decide my future.”

Usually when selecting in the top five of the Entry Draft, you select a player that would have an impact within a year or two. Wheeler, however, will not see professional hockey until the 2009-2010 season if he completes four years of college at the University of Minnesota.

“We know that he is a few years away from playing in the NHL, but we feel he’s a very good hockey player, said Gretzky.

“He’s just 17 years old and doesn’t turn 18 for a little while here”, explained Gretzky. “He’s got his whole life ahead of him. It’s not a race now to get to the Phoenix Coyotes. When you are at the draft you have to realize you have some guys that were picked today can step in and be impact players for their respective teams. We took a kid that we feel will be with our organization for a long time. The last thing we need to do is push him and race him into something he is not comfortable with. Let’s let him finish at least Grade 12 and we will go from there. “

When given one sentence to describe the fifth selection, Gretzky summed it up perfectly.

“A hockey player whose got a tremendous up side.”