Blake Wheeler might be the first – and only – player in NHL history to opt for unrestricted free agency with the intention of getting less money.
But that’s exactly what will happen with Wheeler when he becomes an unrestricted free agent June 8. Wheeler, a former prospect with the Phoenix Coyotes, shocked the hockey world and Coyotes GM Don Maloney by announcing his intention to opt for free agency instead of signing in Phoenix.
That leaves him open to sign with any other team and given that he’s a promising young player and teams would not have to give up any assets to get him, the Blake Wheeler sweepstakes could rival the recently concluded Fabian Brunnstrom sweepstakes.
“He’s a really good prospect,” one scout said of Wheeler. “He’ll get lots of play.”
The rather surprising thing is Wheeler’s decision has nothing to do with money. In fact, Wheeler stood to make more by signing with the Coyotes than he will by becoming an unrestricted free agent.
That’s because he was drafted fifth overall by the Coyotes in 2004 and his entry level salary provision fell under the scope of the old collective bargaining agreement. That provided for a maximum base salary of $950,000, compared to the $875,000 maximum base salary under the current CBA.
Over the course of a three-year entry-level deal, that means Wheeler is potentially leaving $225,000 on the table.
“He isn’t chasing the money,” said Wheeler’s agent Matt Keator. “It’s about choosing where you want to play and where you want to live. It’s not about the money and I think that’s refreshing.”
Maloney did not return phone calls Thursday night, but perhaps he can take solace in the fact that the Coyotes will receive the 35th overall pick as compensation in what is regarded as a very deep draft.
Other executives around the league were baffled by Wheeler’s decision, given that the Coyotes seem to have some promising young players and seem headed in the right direction under head coach Wayne Gretzky. All things being equal – in fact more lucrative financially under his first contract – it seems strange to some hockey people that Wheeler would spurn the Coyotes.
“The only thing I can think of is that he wants to sign with the Minnesota Wild because he’s from there,” one executive said.
The 6-foot-4, 219-pound right winger was drafted after his junior year in high school and since then, has played three seasons at the University of Minnesota. But he dropped out of university after this season and under provisions of the CBA, Wheeler had the right to inform the Coyotes they had 30 days to sign him or he became an unrestricted free agent, something he did May 9.
Wheeler has probably progressed a little slower than the Coyotes expected when they drafted him almost four years ago, but he has put up respectable numbers at Minnesota. This season he had 15 goals and 35 points in 44 games with 72 penalty minutes.
In THN’s Future Watch edition this season, Wheeler was ranked Phoenix’s third-best prospect behind Kyle Turris and Brett MacLean and was ranked 57th overall among drafted players not playing in the NHL.
There is nothing nefarious about Wheeler’s decision Keator said. It was simply a matter of having a choice. Yes, he’s losing money in the short term, but Keator said that won’t mean much if he enjoys a 15-year career in the NHL.
“Now he might have 29 other options,” Keator said. “That’s a powerful thing.”
Ken Campbell is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Tuesdays and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.
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