Welcome to The Amazing Race.
In a sprint toward the playoffs, a shortened NHL season will challenge the Vancouver Canucks to meet long-standing expectations of returning to Stanley Cup contention with a roster that will look different when the puck is dropped. When a tentative collective bargaining agreement was reached early Sunday morning it placed management in the starting blocks to trade Roberto Luongo, get a better timeline on Ryan Kesler’s rehab from offseason shoulder and wrist injuries, figure out their riddles in the middle and add a depth defenceman.
When Kesler was re-evaluated in early December at the Cleveland Clinic to assess progress from a May 8 procedure on his left shoulder and a June 27 surgery on his left wrist, it was determined that the rehab load placed on one side of his body was taking a toll and that progress to build strength and range of motion had been slow. It led to his agent declaring that the centre was months away from returning, which the Canucks disputed because they maintain that the former Selke Trophy winner is improving every day. But to what degree?
“There’s no timeline,” Kesler stressed Sunday. “I’m not going to come back until I’m 100 per cent — before I even think of coming back. I still need a lot of practices with actual NHL players. That’s going to come in time. This (recovery) is not short term for me. I’ve got to take care of my body first and foremost, but I’m like anybody else. I want to play.”
Hip-flexor stiffness from a previous surgery, a bad shoulder and bothersome wrist affected Kesler’s shot velocity and accuracy last season and also his battle level in dropping from a career-high 41 goals to 22 and no goals in five playoff games.
And regardless of the timeline for recovery, the Canucks must fill the void quickly. They could shift winger Chris Higgins into the middle or bump Maxim Lapierre up to the second line and figure out where Jordan Schroeder, Manny Malhotra and Andrew Ebbett fix into the mix. Or they could acquire a centre in a Luongo trade.
“I’ve been optimistic all along with Ryan’s recovery and where he’s at,” said Canucks general manager Mike Gillis. “He’s working very hard and we’re obviously going to be extremely careful with Ryan, but he’s moving along nicely. You can’t accurately predict the day he’ll be ready to return, but he’s moving in the right direction.”
It’s not a stretch to suggest the Canucks will see if they can acquire centre-ice help in a Luongo swap.
“We’ve got a surplus of forwards and Schroeder has played very well the last two weeks in Chicago and there are multiple options we have, including an unconventional one of moving another player to centre ice,” added Gillis. “There’s going to be a lot of (trade) activity once the (CBA) deal gets ratified and teams try to plan. We’ll see what comes our way.”
That’s only part of the acquisition picture. The Canucks like to carry eight defencemen, and while projected pairings are set, Andrew Alberts is the seventh blueliner. Who’s No. 8? Experience is crucial in a short season where injuries will mount as players push to get into midseason form. Unrestricted free agent Jim Vandermeer, 32, has been skating with the Canucks during the lockout and may be short-term and affordable insurance. So make that a defenceman, centre and a back-up goalie for Cory Schneider.