There was a noticeable buzz that came over the crowd at the 2004 NHL draft in Carolina after the Phoenix Coyotes made Minnesota high schooler Blake Wheeler the fifth overall selection.
That buzz was emanating from the 29 other team draft tables made up of scouts, directors of player personnel and managers.
“Wheeler?…buzz, buzz, buzz,” filled the air as team scouts looked at one another and twisted heads to look at associates at other tables. “Now?”
The Coyotes took a calculated risk that day taking Wheeler so high. In all likelihood, they could have traded down 10, 15, even 20 or 25 spots, picked up another asset or two and still selected Wheeler later in the first round. Wheeler was rated as a second-rounder by most other NHL organizations and just 72nd in The Hockey News Draft Preview.
Armchair draft critics such as myself haven’t let the Phoenix organization forget this. It’s not that we thought Wheeler wouldn’t make it and we certainly didn’t wish ill-development upon him; we just thought the Coyotes should have parlayed that fifth overall pick into something more and then taken Wheeler later on.
The fact Wheeler finally made the NHL four years later and is having an impressive offensive impact (six goals and eight points in 13 games with Boston) says a lot about the Coyote scouts who insisted the team take him in the No. 5 spot.
“The kid is going to be a star,” Phoenix hockey operations vice-president Dave Draper said after the 2004 draft. “Sometimes you have to pay a higher price than you’d like or what people would think, but we think we have a real gem.”
Draper and director of amateur scouting Vaughn Karpan had the 6-foot-4, 200-pound Wheeler rated third in that draft, behind Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin. If Wheeler continues his fine play, there’s only three or four other players (beside Ovie and Malky) taken in that shallow 2004 first round that will rate ahead of him.
The strange thing about Wheeler’s development is that it was flat for most of the first four seasons after his draft. He didn’t even come close to averaging a point per game in one season at Green Bay (United States League) and three at the University of Minnesota. And his rating in the THN Future Watch top 75 prospect ranking slipped the past three seasons – from 25 in 2006, to 35 in 2007, to 57 in 2008.
But despite the downward trajectory, the Boston Bruins signed him as a free agent - after Wheeler spurned the Coyotes - and are reaping the reward.
GM Don Maloney said the Coyotes wanted to sign Wheeler and were disappointed when he didn’t sign (they got a second round pick, 35th overall, in 2008 as compensation, which they used in a trade with Anaheim to acquire the 28th overall pick to select Viktor Tikhonov).
And as for Wheeler finally making it in the big time? Way to go kid, you had this coming.
Brian Costello is The Hockey News’s senior special editions editor and a regular contributor to THN.com. You can read his Top 10 list on Wednesdays and his blog each weekend.
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