Wheeler ready to roll in Winnipeg

KIRK PENTON, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 9:32 PM ET

Blake Wheeler is ready to be the player everyone thought he would become.

"I'm developing more into the power forward that I was projected to be when I was younger," the Winnipeg Jets forward said Tuesday from Palm Beach, Fla. "I'm starting to learn how to use my size to my advantage a little bit more."

The 6-foot-5, 210-pound restricted free agent signed a two-year, $5.1 million contract on Monday, avoiding an arbitration hearing in Toronto on Aug. 3.

The Minnesota native is looking forward to playing in front of sellout crowds at MTS Centre, and he is excited to continue his improved play that began after he was dealt to the Atlanta Thrashers from the Boston Bruins in February.

"It was definitely a learning curve, especially the first couple years, learning that if I could use my size and my speed to my advantage it makes playing against me a little bit tougher," the three-year NHL veteran said. "I'm definitely learning how to do that, and I've been having more success with it, especially the later part of last year.

"That's what I'm trying to really work on, is just being more powerful out there and just being really tough to play against."

Wheeler was the only Winnipeg RFA who filed for arbitration, but neither side believed it would come to that. Jets GM Kevin Cheveldayoff said negotiations went swimmingly.

"It's played out exactly how we thought it would," he said.

Going to arbitration is never a fun process, especially for the player, who has to sit there and listen to reasons why he doesn't deserve the salary he's requesting.

"There's no question that you feel fortunate to have that right, but at the same time it's never the most comfortable thing sitting in the room with your (team) and hearing maybe not some of the nicest things about you," said Wheeler, who went through the process last year with the Bruins. "It's definitely nice to start off on a really good foot with these guys."

Cheveldayoff said arbitration hearings aren't what they used to be, as most teams now essentially provide numbers to show a player should receive a salary comparable to other players in their stat bracket.

Wheeler, who was drafted fifth overall by the Phoenix Coyotes in 2004, had seven goals and 10 assists in 23 games after getting traded to Atlanta last February. Before the deal, he had 11 goals and 16 assists in 58 games for the Bruins.

Cheveldayoff said the budding power forward will be given every opportunity to pad his stats in Winnipeg. Oddly, Wheeler's best offensive year was his rookie season, when he potted 21 goals and 24 assists in 81 games.

"He's going to be afforded the opportunity to play on the top lines right from the start," the GM said. "Hopefully, we'd like to see how things finished up with the Thrashers last year is how things pick up with him this year with the Jets."

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