Wheeler signs on dotted line, gets hefty raise

- July 27th, 2013

A quick scene set before we dive into today’s conference call with newly-signed Winnipeg Jets RW Blake Wheeler

It’s early in the third quarter of the CFL game at Investors Group Field on Friday night when colleague Kirk Penton looks over to me with the breaking news:

“Winnipeg Jets agree to terms with RW Blake Wheeler” read the Tweet from Scott Brown, media relations director for True North Sports & Entertainment.

In fewer than 140 characters, my CFL game column was thrust aside and my attention was focused on a 650-word column on why this was a smart move for the Jets, even for the $5.6 million per season the team will be paying him for the next six years.

The immediate reaction for most folks is to say that Wheeler is overpaid and I understand that point of view.

New York Islanders centre (and MVP candidate) John Tavares is only making $5.5 million per year through 2017-18, so many will say it’s the type of money normally reserved for superstars.

But in today’s NHL, contracts are not as simple as what have you done in your career so far. Players are getting paid for future projections and production as well and finding the delicate balance can be tough, especially when a team is buying years of unrestricted free agency.

It’s simply the cost of doing business in the big leagues.

While we expect agent Matt Keator kept a good poker face throughout the negotiations, Wheeler made it clear during a conference call on Saturday morning that his priority was to remain part of the Jets building process, not check out as an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2013-14 season.

“For me, it was virtually a no-brainer,” said Wheeler. “I sat down with my agent, Matt Keator, in the spring and we had the discussion. He asked ‘what do you want to do? I have no problem being the guy to get you to UFA if that’s where your heart is, if you don’t want to be where you are.’

“I looked him in the eyes and said, this is where I want to be.”

Barring something unforeseen, Wheeler will be with the Jets for at least the next six years and now it’s up to Wheeler to continue his progression.

He’s already the top-line RW on his team, but has the physical tools to become an elite player at his position. How high is his ceiling? Not even Wheeler knows, but he’s going to push himself to find out.

Naturally, I was curious if Wheeler was happy to avoid arbitration and he gave a fairly revealing answer, one that only a guy who has been through the process before can actually provide.

“I’ve had arbitration rights since I’ve been in the league, arbitration has kind been a bit of the norm for me since I’ve been a pro,” said Wheeler, who was chosen fifth overall of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft by the Phoenix Coyotes but signed as a free agent with the Bruins in 2008. “I went to arbitration once with Boston and when I signed my last contract with Winnipeg (two summers ago), it was kind of the same process. It’s not the best scenario. It’s never fun to have to sit across the table from the people that are in charge and hear some things that, while it’s all business, you still don’t like to hear those things all the time.

“I’m thrilled to have avoided that process. I don’t think it’s really the end goal for anyone. It’s a huge right for the players in the CBA, an important right that we retained in our CBA but at the end of the day, this is the preferred method, to get a deal done before you have to go to Toronto.”

The Jets could have saved a few hundred thousand dollars per season had they gone to arbitration, but then would have almost certainly lost Wheeler after next season as an unrestricted free agent.

And that wasn’t a risk they could afford to take.

“I think the reason we are where we are right now is that both sides wanted to get a deal done. Because of that, I think thae nature of the talks were always cordial. I don’t think there was any fire spitting back and forth,” said Wheeler. “What it came down to was finding the right numbers for both sides. At the end of the day, both sides had to come together and go to a different spot to make a deal.”

Much like I said after the Jets signed Evander Kane to a six-year deal worth $31.5 million last September, this is another contract that might appear steep right now but could prove to be a bargain by the end of it.

And as I mentioned on Twitter, it’s my belief that Wheeler is going to have more 30 goal and 80-plus point seasons during the course of the contract than either Nathan Horton or David Clarkson, who were the crown jewel RWs of the UFA season and received contracts in the same tax bracket as Wheeler.

The reason I applaud Kevin Cheveldayoff and company for making long-term commitments to both Wheeler and linemate Bryan Little (5 years at $4.7 million per) is that both players have proven to be effective players and also sing the praises of playing in the Winnipeg market.

Inking key members of the core to long-term deals for big money shows that the franchise is committed to trying to build a winner and isn’t afraid to write a big check.

Once D Zach Bogosian (who has an arbitration hearing set for Aug. 2 that we don’t expect to actually happen) signs on the dotted line, the majority of the Jets’ salary cap space will be gone and the team will be close to the ceiling.

There have been plenty of people complaining that since the Jets are bringing in all of this revenue, despite being a small-market team, why don’t they spend more money rather than just be a mid-cap team. Well, that commitment is being made.

Will the Jets continue to hang out in the high-rent district if and when the salary cap goes back up in the coming years?

Only time will tell, but this is surely a step in the right direction.

Of course, there are risks to committing to this group.

The bulk of them have been around since the days of the Atlanta Thrashers and most of them have limited — or no playoff experience whatsoever.

But guys like Wheeler are going to have to play an important role for the Jets to break the losing habit and finally qualify for the playoffs.

The power forward from Robbinsdale, Minn. hasn’t been shy about airing his thoughts on the matter and he reiterated them on Saturday morning.

Finally, this was Wheeler’s reaction to my question about off-season pick-ups, Michael Frolik and Devin Setoguchi.

“They’re great additions,” said Wheeler. “You have two guys that A, have proven they can provide offence. And Frolik just won a Stanley Cup and you can never discount adding a Stanley Cup champion to your team. That just is an instant boost right away.

“They’re two guys that are hungry to maybe get a little bit added responsibility with us. I’m really excited about what they bring to the table because I think they can really help take our team to the next level.”

My coverage package for print and online includes a column with Wheeler’s reaction to the deal and a sidebar on his quest to become a U.S. Olympian.

The countdown to Bogosian’s signing continues. As I’ve been saying from the beginning, I expect Bogosian to follow suit and agree to a long-term deal of his own before Thursday’s arbitration hearing comes to pass.

Once that contract is complete, Cheveldayoff is free to enjoy a little down time before searching for possible free-agent bargains, training camp invitees and other depth players.

Categories: Hockey

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