In Phoenix, Wheel(er) of Misfortune

Remember the 2004 NHL Entry Draft and the heads that turned — swiveled fully a la Linda Blair in ‘The Exorcist,’ actually — when Phoenix selected Minnesota high school junior Blake Wheeler with the 5th overall pick?¬†Wheeler that spring was a riser of a prospect, but Phoenix — to wide and loud ridicule from the TSN commentators at the time — slotted the big wing about 20 places higher than on any other NHL team’s draft board. At least. His development over the four hockey seasons since can be said to have been steady if unspectacular. Meaning: about 29 NHL clubs probably got a pretty good read on Wheeler while the ‘Yotes, drafting at 5th overall¬†. . . not so much.
First-rounders Phoenix passed on¬†back in¬†’04¬†include Rostislav Olesz; Drew Stafford; Alexander Radulov; Andrej Meszaros; and Mike Green.¬†
Well what seemed a bizarre pick four summers back turned, this past weekend, into a superbly lousy one for the Desert Dogs.
In a first instance of exercising a provision brought about by the new CBA, Wheeler informed Phoenix of his intention to become a free agent this June 1, spurning Phoenix’ recent contract offer.¬†Wheeler was able to pull this off because rather than return to the Breck Academy for his senior year of high school (he led all Minnesota high schoolers in scoring his junior year), he bolted for the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL. The new CBA allows NHL clubs the rights to picks who go on to college a total of four years to sign them. Not four years of college, four years of rights. Blake left Minnesota this spring after his junior season to turn pro.
Wheeler’s case represents something fundamentally different from say R.J. Umberger, drafted 16th overall¬† by Vancouver in 2001. Umberger,¬†beholden to¬†the old CBA, completed all four years at Ohio State before coming to a negotiations impasse with the Canucks. He was first dealt by Vancouver to the Rangers, who fared no better in their negotations, and¬†eventually he signed as a free agent with the Flyers.
Capitals’ Director of Media Relations Nate Ewell informed me today that the Caps have a set of comparable challenges, potentially, with 2007 draft picks Brett Bruneteau and Andrew Glass. Bruneteau has¬†two seasons in the USHL under his belt, and he’ll join the North Dakota Fighting Sioux this fall. Glass, like his draft classmate,¬†won’t enter¬†college as a freshman until this fall, joining the BU Terriers. For drafted players who go on to college, years spent in¬†the USHL¬†or simply as a year or two off to gain maturity and strength count in the four-year window of rights eligibility. Wheeler is the first player to exercise this¬†out clause, if you will, within the new CBA.¬†¬†¬†
As compensation for Wheeler Phoenix will receive the fifth pick in this year’s second round. The Coyotes can only hope that Wheeler doesn’t turn out to be anywhere near the player that Umberger is.¬†¬†

This entry was posted in College Hockey, DraftGeek, Entry Draft, NHL Rules, Phoenix Coyotes, Prospects, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to In Phoenix, Wheel(er) of Misfortune

  1. Mark Tucker says:

    Perhaps I’m missing something, but for a guy who isn’t playing at a high enough level 4 years after his draft year (especially a forward), doesn’t this hurt “Blake” more than the Yotes?
    As for the Caps prospects…who?

  2. Mark,
    Wheeler I think is a solid bet to have a pro career, but this news — from my vantage — means that Phoenix seriously pissed away a top 5 pick. And in a first round that produced some terrific talent.

  3. Mark Tucker says:

    But Phoenix has his rights until June 1, right?
    Can’t they tender an offer that will retain his rights?

  4. Phoenix made their offer to Wheeler, and by all appearances, either (1) it insulted him and or (2) he had plans all along to get into free agency once he left the U.
    I, too, wondered about Phoenix’s ability to counter offer. But apparently it’s been made known around the league that he’s a free agent come June 1.

  5. Mark Tucker says:

    So perhaps, the moral of the story is to BEWARE when drafting so young under the new CBA, as teams will have less time to truly determine a player’s upside.

  6. MulletMan says:

    How was that written into the CBA? I would have thought that an unsigned rookie would be a RFA instead of a unrestricted.
    Didn’t the league learn anything from Mush-head? Does he still fall into the cap limitations that will set a max $ on his new contract. I would hate to see first year or two players earning big league dollars.
    Wonder is this is going to lead to another lock-out.

  7. langway says:

    Wheeler will still be limited to entry-level salary limitations. If he does hit the market then he’ll be in a situation similar to that of Fabian Brunnstrom. In other words, money won’t be the deciding factor…though perhaps that’s why he originally decided not to join the Phoenix organization.
    Phoenix is still free to make their last minute offers and this could perhaps just be a late negotiating tactic but it is a danger with some draft picks. If nothing else, Phoenix will at least get some compensation in the form of the 35th pick in this year’s draft. That’s more than Boston can say about losing Yuri Alexandrov–their second rounder in ’06–who has already decided not to sign with Boston before the coming deadline and is now an entirely wasted pick.
    But Phoenix did have four years to evaluate Wheeler. That’s longer than teams have to evaluate players that take other developmental paths. Bottom line: just because a player is drafted by a team doesn’t mean they’ll eventually be a part of the organization even if the team desires it.
    Nick Larson–also taken late in the ’07 draft–fits into the same situation as Glass and Bruneteau as players taking the NCAA route but not immediately doing so after being drafted. In Bruneteau’s case, he could potentially play out another year in the USHL due to a number of factors. And from the ’06 draft, Brent Gwidt is another Caps prospect following a similar path. He’s now played two years in the USHL after being drafted and will attend Nebraska-Omaha this fall.

  8. Langway,
    Thanks for those helpful contributions. The main point I was trying to drive home here was how serious a squandering Phoenix made back in ’04. It seems to me that any team drafting from a lottery position has some level of obligation to secure a high-end talent that will help the team 2-4 years down the road — sooner (as is the case with Nicklas Backstrom) if you’re lucky. I think a main reason for the uproar over Phoenix’s selection of Wheeler wasn’t so much that they were going off the proverbial board with the pick but that lodged in a privileged position in virtually any draft, the Coyotes committed an unforced error, and lengthened their rebuild in the process.

  9. langway says:

    That’s a fair point, though the NHL draft is far from a certain thing even when you’re picking in the top five some years. There was definitely talent available at five, though, as you point out. That same need for a safe selection when picking high is in part why McPhee went with Karl Alzner last year, imo. He was a safe pick…maybe even an underrated pick because he was already so polished for his age that his future ceiling wasn’t thought by some to be terrificly high. (I didn’t agree with that then and still don’t.)
    In hindsight you’d think Phoenix would have been able to trade down, pick up other assets and still get Wheeler. That way if they did miss on their home run shot they don’t look quite as bad in the process. But if you go back and look at their earlier first round selections from late 90’s until ’04 it’s not a very pretty picture. In that respect, Wheeler is just the tip of the iceberg. That long of a period of not netting solid talent in the draft can often be the precursor to a team eventually needing a full-on rebuild, as Phoenix has since had to undergo in the past couple of seasons and just the Caps had to do after quite a few years of not getting a whole lot through the draft.
    One more note: the Arizona Republic has Wheeler’s sign date as June 8th.

  10. CP2Devil says:

    Yotes problems were organizational, especially after Ellmen/Gretzky duo took over. Thankfully after Moyes took control last year he got rid of Gretzky’s cronies at the top, Barnett and Fletcher, and hired Don Maloney. Don never would have drafted Wheeler that high. That pick is all on Gretzky. Wayne fell in love with the kid and as a result he got drafted way too high. langway is right that they could have had him much later in the draft.
    No one here in the Valley is panicking about the situation. With 11 days to go still plenty of time to sign the kid. Yotes lowballed with first offer and will probably wind up having to give the kid the rookie max or very close to it. For some reason they think he could play right away in NHL. Probably Wayne’s blindness kicking in again. I don’t buy it and want Radim Vrbata re-signed like yesterday. This team had little offense last year to begin with. Without Radim its Mueller, Doan, and a bunch of 3rd liners.
    I think I’d rather have Mike Green than Blake Wheeler regardless of how good Wheeler turns out to be. :-).

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