Shortly into his first practice with the Thrashers and Blake Wheeler was in familiar territory.
One of the newest Thrashers was doing one-on-one and two-on-two battle drills Monday – courtesy of coach Craig Ramsay. Wheeler, who was acquired with Mark Stuart Friday from Boston, spent much time doing the drills when their inventor was an assistant with the Bruins the previous three seasons.
“Blake made a comment about it right off the bat because it’s a hard drill,” Ramsay said. “They saw one of the old drills coming out pretty quick.”
Wheeler and Stuart flew to back to Boston following Saturday’s loss in Edmonton to tie up loose ends. They arrived in Atlanta Monday morning just in time for their first practice.
“I view this as a great opportunity and a great challenge,” said Wheeler, who thought he was headed to Toronto in the deal that eventually brought Tomas Kaberle to Boston. “It really couldn’t have been a more perfect situation having Rammer here already, having worked with him pretty extensively in the past few years on the penalty kill. That makes everything a lot easier in itself. Philosophy-wise you know where he is coming from.
“I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this. In Boston, sometimes, a little bit of frustration set in with everything. It’s a great team with so many great players.”
While one of the reasons the Thrashers made the deal, giving up Rich Peverley and former first-round pick Boris Valabik, was to get bigger up front, especially at center. However, it appears Wheeler will get a chance at right wing to begin his Thrashers career. He played mostly right wing in the 5-3 loss to Edmonton, although he did play some center.
“The position I’ve been most comfortable has been right wing and it’s the position I’ve probably played the least in my NHL career so far,” Wheeler said. “I feel I can play any of the positions. With center, the only challenge for me is in the faceoff circle. I haven’t really practiced it much that last few years.”
Ramsay said he thought Wheeler played better at right wing against Edmonton.
The 24-year-old Wheeler, who had an assist against the Oilers, had 11 goals for the Bruins has he shuffled between different lines and linemates. He said his speed and forecheck ability are his strengths. His size? Well, that’s something the 6-foot-5, 205-pounder has been working to take advantage of.
“An area that has gotten better is protecting the puck in the offensive zone and trying to hold on to and let my linemates get open and try to make plays from there,” Wheeler said. “The speed is definitely an asset. The size is something I’ve been trying to work on more and more this past year, using that to my advantage. It’s coming along.”
The Thrashers (25-25-10, 60 points) obtained Wheeler and Stuart in the midst of a playoff race. After winning just six times in the past 25 games (6-14-5), the Thrashers entered Monday’s NHL schedule 10th in the Eastern Conference, four points behind Carolina for the eighth and final playoff spot. They play at Buffalo, who also has 60 points but two games in hand, on Wednesday. Boston had a four-point lead in the Northeast Division.
“Any time you get moved you want to still be competing for something,” Wheeler said. “This team is right there.”