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Coyotes GM Maloney Says Losing Blake Wheeler ‘Is Still a Sore Spot’

Every general manager feels the sting of regret at some point in his NHL career. Maybe he feels it after a bad draft choice, maybe it’s the product of a poor free agent signing, or maybe he regrets the manner in which he handled a delicate situation.

As the Coyotes prepare to face the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday at MTS Centre, GM Don Maloney wonders if he could have done things differently with Winnipeg forward Blake Wheeler, who leads the Jets with 21 points (eight goals) in 20 games this season.

Wheeler was the Coyotes’ first-round pick (fifth overall) in 2004 while Mike Barnett was still their GM. Maloney didn’t arrive until 2007, the same year the team selected center Kyle Turris with the third overall pick in the NHL Draft.

“We paid a lot of attention to Kyle after we drafted him,” Maloney said. “In hindsight, you wonder ‘did we pay enough attention to Blake? Should we have wined and dined him more?'”

After the Coyotes drafted him, Wheeler attended the University of Minnesota. When his collegiate career ended, however, he refused to come to terms with the Coyotes, despite being offered the maximum entry-level deal allowed under the collective bargaining agreement.

He became an unrestricted free agent in 2008 and signed with the Boston Bruins, where he scored 21 goals in his rookie season. The Coyotes received a second-round pick as compensation.

When Wheeler played his 500th NHL game last season, he was asked about the decision to part ways with the Coyotes.

“I was fully expecting to sign with Phoenix and maybe even play games at the end of that season. I was ready to go,” Wheeler told the Winnipeg Sun. “I watched their games and knew players on the team. I thought that was going to happen. But (Maloney) talked to me a couple days after and hinted that it wasn’t looking that way.

“It was a clean slate. When I was drafted in Phoenix, it was different management and pretty much a different organization from the time I was drafted to the time I went to Boston. They had a new regime and new prospects. I was far down the totem pole and it would have been a tough situation for me to claw my way out of there.”

It seems an odd portrayal of the situation since Peter Mueller had just played his rookie season with the Coyotes and Mikkel Boedker and Turris were both NHL rookies the same season that Wheeler debuted. The Coyotes clearly weren’t averse to playing young prospects at the time — a decision Maloney has been questioned about numerous times since.

There have been suggestions that Wheeler didn’t want to play for a franchise that, at the time, was in utter disarray. The Coyotes had missed the playoffs for five straight seasons when Wheeler left Minnesota. Barnett had been fired a year earlier for mismanagement, the team was suffering staggering losses and owner Jerry Moyes would put the team into bankruptcy one year later. But those around the team at the time insisted Wheeler had a great relationship with then-coach and executive Wayne Gretzky.

Matt Keator, Wheeler’s agent, issued a statement at the time explaining his client’s move. The language of that statement may have come closer to the truth. It seems Wheeler just didn’t want to play in Arizona so he made what was then an unusual move for a college free agent to snub the team that drafted him.

“We appreciate the Coyotes offering the maximum amount,” Keator said in the statement. “There is no question that they wanted to sign Blake and made every effort to do so but there was more than money involved in this decision.

“Per the NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement, it is Blake’s right to pursue Unrestricted Free Agency. Most players wait until their late 20s to become unrestricted and choose where they will live and play. Blake now has the opportunity at age 21, which is the biggest reason for him pursuing this route at this point in his career.”

Wheeler’s play declined in the two seasons following his rookie season and the Bruins traded him to the Atlanta Thrashers along with Mark Stuart, for Boris Valábik and Rich Peverley. The Thrashers moved to Winnipeg in 2011 and Wheeler’s play has steadily improved ever since.

He posted a career-high 69 points two seasons ago and is currently on pace for better than a point per game this season.

“That is still a sore spot,” the ever-candid Maloney said. “Blake has turned into a terrific hockey player and when you look back at that pick that many people questioned at the time, it turned out to be a great pick.

“It took him some time to be an impact player but seven eight years later, he’s having a major impact. He really is a heck of hockey player. In fact, if you look at those few drafts for us in those years, he might have been the best player we took.”

Wheeler is questionable for Saturday’s game after taking a puck to the head on a wayward shot from Dustin Byfuglien in practice on Friday. The puck struck Wheeler on the right side of his head and the Winnipeg Free Press reported Wheeler “was in some distress on the ice before receiving attention from the team’s training staff.” Wheeler was eventually able to skate off, holding a towel to his head.

“He got off the ice under his own power and he was coherent so we’ll get him checked out,” Jets coach Paul Maurice told reporters. “We won’t know until this afternoon or (Saturday).”

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