As the NHL lockout hits an important pivot – do talks move forward, or do they remain stalled? – the prospect of being in game shape has become a more tangible question if a potential settlement is reached in the next several weeks.
In Vancouver, a small group of players from the two-time Presidents’ Trophy-winning Canucks continue to practise at the University of British Columbia, including the Sedins, and goaltender Cory Schneider.
On Tuesday morning, for part of the practice, Schneider worked one-on-one with goalie coach Eli Wilson, the former Ottawa Senators goaltending coach who now runs his own business.
The Canucks, alongside the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers, have among the fewest players in Europe, just two for Vancouver, while some NHL teams have upwards of half their roster playing pro games overseas, including the Detroit Red Wings and the Boston Bruins.
Schneider, an American who has Swiss citizenship through his father’s side of the family, closely watches the labour talks, as a team rep on the players’ bargaining committee, but he mulls a move to Switzerland “sooner than later” if progress isn’t made. He would qualify as a non-import.
For Schneider, a 26-year-old who has never been an NHL starter, it’s about getting the game sense, the intuition, humming. Schneider had earlier resisted Europe, due to the differences in goaltending on the larger ice surface.
“When you’re out here,” said Schneider after practice at UBC on Tuesday, “you don’t think the game like you would in a game situation.”
Schneider concedes players coming back from Europe would have something of an advantage early but said that could be equally outweighed by fatigue in the spring. Defenceman Kevin Bieksa said players returning may be a “little bit sharper” but believed intense training camps may minimize the factor.
Bieksa said there is talk of intense two-week training camps, skating every day, with a couple exhibition games.
“I know we’re not playing game-type situations, but you don’t lose it that much, when you’re skating every day, when you’re skating with high-calibre players, the Sedins. Some of the best players in the world are here,” said Bieksa. “We’ve all pushed each other, and we’ve all pushed each other in workouts.”
The Canucks in recent years have been slow starters. The team was 9-9-1 last year in mid-November before going on the run to finish first in the regular season.
The lost month of hockey, in one way, has helped the Canucks, given the injury situation. Centre Ryan Kesler continues to rehab from wrist and shoulder surgeries and may not be ready until January.
Had there been hockey in October, the Canucks would have had a depleted defence. Top-scoring D-man Alex Edler has an injured back again, a bulging disc, and his return is not known, though he is skating. D-man Jason Garrison, a Vancouver region local and the team’s big free-agent signing, is out with an injured groin, though he has said he is nearly recovered after working with Vancouver physiotherapist Rick Celebrini, a well-known specialist.
Schneider, Bieksa and Daniel Sedin all emphasized the Canucks‘ team focus on fitness. The group practising together also work out off the ice, all trying each other’s specific workouts. Sedin also noted that any condensed schedule could help the Canucks, because the team is used to gruelling travel, and back-to-back games. He said any advantage players returning from Europe will be short-lived and could be a hindrance late in the year.
“I’ll give it a week,” said Sedin on Tuesday. “That’s not really a problem. I think it will even out. Hopefully, we go on a long playoff run, and we’ll be fresh.”