Blake Wheeler is no stranger to traveling the middle lanes of the ice as a center. He played center in his two seasons at the University of Minnesota, and even before that as a youngster growing up in Robbinsdale, Minn.
So when Claude Julien told him during the team’s first preseason game at Montreal a week ago that he wanted him to switch from left wing to center, Wheeler wasn’t completely lost but admits he did need to adjust to the increased skating the position requires.
“It takes a little bit of time to get used to the skating because there’s a lot more skating playing up the middle,” Wheeler said. “That in itself is an adjustment, but other than that it’s really not that big of a deal.”
Julien, general manager Peter Chiarelli and the rest of the team brass are looking at Wheeler as a possible replacement in the third-line center slot to help fill the void left by Marc Savard, who is out with post-concussion syndrome and likely to start the season on long-term injury reserve, in which case he'd miss at least the first 10 games of the season.
Wheeler said he doesn’t mind the switch and doesn’t believe he will get caught out of position trying to refamiliarize himself at center. But he admits he will need to improve his faceoff skills.
“Everyone knows each other’s position pretty well out there and everyone knows where the other guy is supposed to be just by playing with them,” he said. “So it really doesn’t take much time at all. The biggest challenge is faceoffs. That’s where you need to have repetition because it gets you better at the craft. That’s the toughest part to get the hang of again, taking faceoffs.”
“I think it helps definitely before games,” Wheeler said of picking his teammates’ brains to learn about the opponents’ best faceoff men. “I always hear them going through the centers and trying to see who does what. I was thrown in there mid-game the last time so I was just kind of taking a whack at the puck. But I guess if you know you’re going to be there before the game, you have a better chance of preparing for what guys do in the faceoff circle.”
The 6-foot-5, 205-pound Wheeler plans on using his size as a center in the defensive zone, but doesn't figure to change his approach on offense.
“You can be more of a presence [in the defensive zone] and kind of plug up holes more,” he said. “In the offensive zone now, everyone is kind of going around and filling holes wherever they may be. Offensively, there’s no difference, you just have to get to the net.”
Wheeler believes that Julien’s system, which has a strong emphasis on team defense, makes it easier to switch positions when asked. Having the two-way mentality already built into their approach can ease the transition. Wheeler also will rely on his experience on the penalty kill.
“You have to sacrifice a lot on the penalty kill and center is no different,” Wheeler said. “I know since I got here, it was so much more of an emphasis on team defense here than maybe what I was used to, so you know if you’re not back-checking hard or you’re out of position defensively, you’re going to get exposed. You have to work as a five-man unit out there. I think that in itself has been a key for everyone trying to play team defense.”
Wheeler admitted that he likes playing wing better, but he wants to do what’s best for the team and has no problem making the switch if it becomes a permanent assignment.
“I played center when I was younger and in college, but as I started to play wing more I think I liked that more,” he said. “But preference doesn’t matter at this level. It’s just wherever they plug you in you've just got to do your best.”