The chase for Brad Richards will dominate a lot of the offseason headlines for the New York Rangers when it comes to free agency outside of the organization. How the Rangers do in those attempts to lure Richards to New York will have a large influence on the money that is left under the salary cap and many of the other roster decisions within and outside the organization in terms of need. If the Rangers fail to secure Brad Richards, and maybe even if they do get him, depending on the money and other decisions they make there are other options out there in the free agent market. One such option for the Rangers to consider is restricted free agent Blake Wheeler of the Atlanta Thrashers.
Wheeler, 24, was originally the fifth overall selection in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft by the Phoenix Coyotes. After attending the University of Minnesota Wheeler opted for free agency rather than sign with the Coyotes. During the summer of 2008 he was a highly sought prospect and eventually signed with the Boston Bruins. Wheeler would make an immediate impact for the Bruins during the 2008-09 season when goals and had 24 assists. Given that strong opening act in Boston the expectations were high for him. Following that season, his time with the Bruins was somewhat disappointing to the point where in 58 games for Boston this year he only had 11 goals and 16 assists. At the deadline the Bruins decided to move Wheeler to the Atlanta Thrashers along with Mark Stuart for Rich Peverley and Boris Valabik. The trade seemed to energize Wheeler as he had seven goals and 10 assists in only 23 games for the Thrashers. With the strong finish Wheeler has now scored 18 goals or more in each of his three NHL seasons while also playing in at least 81 games each year.
A large cause for why the Rangers would be interested in Wheeler, aside from his individual skill, is the instant chemistry he has shown with Rangers’ rookie forward Derek Stepan during the current 2011 IIHF World Championships. The two Minnesota natives have combined with Stepan’s former teammate at Wisconsin, Craig Smith, to form the top line for Team USA. The chemistry between Wheeler and Stepan has been evident from the opening game of the tournament as there is a feel for where one another will be on the ice that usually comes after significant time together. That kind of feel for another player is something that cannot be discounted by an organization, especially when looking to surround Stepan with wingers who can score and help him continue his own development. Chemistry is one of those undervalued aspects of the game in terms of line combinations in how it can help to improve the consistency of performance for the players involved. When you are able to leave lines together it helps all players involved and creates a better foundation for the team on a nightly basis.
Being a restricted free agent and accounting for his strong close to the season as well as good performance in the World Championships it is likely that Atlanta would match his qualifying offer of $2.2 million to retain his rights this summer. Being a restricted free agent does not preclude the Rangers from pursuing Wheeler either in the form of an offer sheet or through a trade with Atlanta. With the Rangers likely to have multiple departures from their forward core the idea of adding Wheeler to play with Stepan and possible Mats Zuccarello, who also showed flashes of chemistry with Stepan, is something that should intrigue the Rangers for next season. Again, a lot of this would depend on the Richards chase, the cost of signing the Rangers own restricted free agents and other roster moves that would be made to create roster spots and cap space, but Wheeler is someone that should intrigue the Rangers for the right price.