VANCOUVER - Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault feels confident his team can overcome the injury to key centre Ryan Kesler and remain a force to be reckoned with when the puck drops on an shortened NHL season.
Kesler is recovering from off-season surgeries to his left wrist and left shoulder and his return is still unknown.
His absence leaves a gaping void in the second line, but Vigneault isn’t fazed. He points to his team’s record in recent years when it has endured a spate of injuries to big names.
“We’ve dealt with injuries in the past,” Vigneault said Friday. “We’ve been one of the teams in the last three or four years that’s had the most injuries in the league … We’ve dealt with this before, we’ve dealt with it in a good way and our record indicates that.
“With Ryan’s case, obviously he’s a huge part of our team but while he’s not there, we’re going to do what we’ve always done in the past and make the right decisions for the team.”
Vigneault shot down suggestions of shifting wing Chris Higgins into the middle and moving other players out of their comfort zone.
“As we move forward here, we’re probably going to go with things that we know have worked in the past and put players in the positions that they’ve been successful in,” he said, echoing comments made by Canucks GM Mike Gillis earlier in the week.
“I’m not saying that that won’t be a possibility down the road, but I don’t think that we’ll start with Chris Higgins in the middle.”
With little room for error in a shortened season, Vigneault admitted it would be tough for youngsters such as centre Andrew Ebbett and wing Jordan Schroeder to make an impression early on, so it appears right wing Alexandre Burrows will remain on the top line with Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
“Their window to show what they can do is so much different than in the past,” he said. “With the limited amount of time that we have, it’s probably a safe bet to say that we are going to start with combinations — whether it be defensive pairings or forwards — that have worked in the past and then if it doesn’t as we move forward, we’ll make the adjustments that we need to make.
“People have to trust us that we’ll make the right decisions. We’ll know (who the second line centre will be) in the next couple of days.”
Aside from the injury to Kesler, the Canucks still boast plenty of experienced players up front and on the blue-line, and Vigneault can sense his team’s hunger for success after last season's shocking first-round loss at the hands of eventual Stanley Cup champions Los Angeles Kings.
“I think we’ve got a real veteran group that not only says that it wants to win, but also takes the steps to prove that it wants to win,” he said. “And starting Sunday we’ll be able to show everybody that we’re willing to take those steps to move forward and become a championship team.”
Vancouver is set for a challenging time in the Western Conference’s Northwest Division this season as a result of Minnesota splashing the cash to land forward Zach Parise and defenceman Ryan Suter in the off-season, while Edmonton boasts a talented young core group led by Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and last year's top overall draft pick Nail Yakupov.
But it’s the entire conference that is giving Vigneault some concerns.
“There’s so many good teams in our conference,” he said. “If you remember last year I said that and I was totally right, any team getting into the playoffs in our conference had a chance of winning the Stanley Cup and we all know what happened.”
Vigneault, who is entering the seventh year as Canucks head coach, says he's itching to get back to work after a lockout spent working out in the mornings, shovelling snow and watching classic battles between Montreal and Quebec City on TV at nights.
“We’ve been waiting for this for a long time,” said Vigneault. “Some guys say this is not like riding a bike. But for me, I’m ready, I’m sharp, don’t worry about that.”