The Vancouver Canucks have begun recent NHL seasons hoping, pining or downright begging that a winger emerged in training camp and complemented top scorers Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
That is no longer the case.
The Canucks believe they are making a positive choice this month, not a hope-and-pray selection, between Alex Burrows, a catalyst last season who got the twins playing faster, and newcomer Mikael Samuelsson, a former Sedin linemate on the Swedish national team.
Yesterday, head coach Alain Vigneault acknowledged that leaving Burrows, who blossomed offensively last year, with the Sedins would be the "logical" choice. But Vigneault also said it wasn't simply a matter of stabilizing Vancouver's top forward combination, and suggested that the composition of the second line might ultimately dictate who plays with the Sedins.
"We've got more than one weapon there that I could use," he said about Burrows and Samuelsson, a free-agent signing from Detroit. "But I'm not quite sure how we're going to start. I'm going to try both. It's not a matter of just that line working, but it's also a matter of getting some other lines to work."
The Canucks enter the meat of their exhibition schedule tonight, playing three games in three nights including two in California. They have four more games next week before beginning the regular season in Calgary on Oct. 1.
When last season ended in a second-round loss to Chicago, Vancouver's second line was centred by Mats Sundin, and included proved scorer Pavol Demitra. Sundin is without an NHL contract, while Demitra is on the mend from off-season shoulder surgery and will miss the opener.
The holdover is Ryan Kesler, who was chosen team MVP last season and is equally comfortable playing centre or right wing. The loser of the Burrows-Samuelsson battle is also likely to fill a spot on the second line, which could raise some delicious prospects for the Canucks.
Before Burrows was cast with the twins last February, he formed an effective duo with Kesler, a pairing that Vigneault clearly wanted to keep intact. They are Vancouver's primary penalty killers, yet they have enough skill and speed that they combined for 54 goals last year.
Samuelsson, meanwhile, flanked the Sedins at both the 2006 Olympics and the 2005 world championships. In 17 games in those tournaments, the triumvirate combined for 32 points.
Samuelsson, one of two Canuck players with a Stanley Cup ring, has said that he left the Red Wings in order to improve his NHL lot, and play more significant minutes with better players. He has backed off those statements at camp, but he has some intriguing attributes, including a right-handed trigger and an inclination to shoot the puck.
Samuelsson has also learned some intricacies of skating with the Sedins.
"The rules are to stay open," Samuelsson said. "And don't stay too close to them. They want space and they find each other really well. So, you try to stay high in the slot in the offensive zone. But that's just one small part of it."
The third member of the second line, while Demitra heals, is coming down to a choice between two young NHL wingers, and rookies Cody Hodgson, Michael Grabner and Sergei Shirokov.
Steve Bernier and Mason Raymond, both 24, established themselves as regulars last season, but neither provided enough offensive punch to cement roles among the top six forwards.
Hodgson holds the most promise, but he is just 19 years old and is battling a sore back. The team's top prospect returned to contact drills on Tuesday and could make his preseason debut on Saturday.
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