Playoff prowess raises stakes for Kyle Wellwood

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During his two seasons with the Vancouver Canucks, Kyle Wellwood has been out of shape, out of favour with the coach, out of the lineup because of indifferent performance, and very nearly out of work altogether at the National Hockey League level. Yet, at times in each of his first two trips to the Stanley Cup playoffs, the mercurial centre with soft hands—and an even softer mid-section—has been out of this world.

Appearing disinterested and unmotivated for long stretches of the regular season, Wellwood played his best and most inspired hockey when it mattered most. But that was probably when it was least expected, given the intensity and physical nature of playoff hockey. The battle level went up while time and space disappeared, and somehow the undersized Wellwood seemed to thrive when the pressure mounted and the games meant so much. With two goals and five assists, the Windsor, Ontario, native may not have been the most productive Canuck in this year’s postseason. He did, however, play himself into the conversation about the most consistent Canuck forward in the playoffs.

Winning face-offs, fighting for loose pucks, hustling back to break up plays, and chipping in with offence, all while staying out of the penalty box, Wellwood managed to find an extra gear that simply didn’t exist during an underwhelming regular season. Perhaps he realized the importance of the moment, or maybe it was just the fact that his contract is up and he knew he was playing for next year’s paycheque. Whatever his motivation, Wellwood rarely took a shift off in the playoffs. (He did have a tough night in the Canucks’ final game of the season but he wasn’t alone, as the team fell 5-1 to Chicago and was eliminated for the second straight year in six games by the Blackhawks).

It’s obvious to anyone who pays any attention to the game that Wellwood has offensive talent. He may well be the best puck handler on the Canucks, and he’s one of the few players on the roster willing and able to stickhandle around—and at times through—opponents. However, despite possessing such a fine skill-set, Wellwood is also a guy who set up just 11 goals in 75 regular-season games. During one long stretch, from early January through early March, he went 18 games without an assist.

Some will point to the revolving door for wingers he played with, and it is tough to find a legitimate finisher on that list of names. But it must also be pointed out that Wellwood averaged close to two minutes a night on the power play—a very good Canucks power play—and still couldn’t generate much offence.

So this is where things get interesting, because the Vancouver Canucks will soon have a difficult decision to make. Do they want Kyle Wellwood back again, sleepwalking through parts of the schedule? Are they willing to overlook his shortcomings yet again, well aware of the fact that he isn’t likely to do much to help his team make the playoffs, but is a fairly safe bet to contribute once it gets there?

For the first time in a while, the Canucks have young talent—former first-round picks Michael Grabner, Cody Hodgson, and Jordan Schroeder—looking for everyday spots on the roster. The model for success in the salary-cap era of the NHL is to insert young players on entry-level contracts into the lineup and let them contribute right away. As a team with several sizable contracts, the Canucks seem likely to inject some youth next season as a way of offsetting costs and getting some of their top prospects experience in the big league.

Yet, at the same time, Kyle Wellwood isn’t likely to cost the Canucks a fortune. Judging by his modest 25-point regular season, it’s hard to imagine Wellwood getting much of a raise—if any—from the $1.2 million he made this season. And that certainly isn’t out of line with what other third-line centres are pulling down around the NHL. And the argument can very easily be made that the Canucks are getting pretty good bang for their buck from a guy who doesn’t do much banging during the year but morphs into a completely different character when the postseason rolls around.

Of course, the decision isn’t entirely the Canucks’. Wellwood’s elevated performance won’t go unnoticed by other organizations, and as an unrestricted free agent he’s earned the right to shop himself around the league. There may be teams out there ready to give the 26-year-old more money or a longer contract. Just 18 months ago, a pay raise and job security hardly seemed in the cards for Wellwood, as his NHL career looked to be in jeopardy after the Canucks placed him on waivers with the intention of shipping him to the minors. Despite his flaws, however, Wellwood has proven to be a survivor—and over the past month he’s been much more than that.

And that’s why it’s probably worth the Canucks making every effort to retain Wellwood this off-season. There will certainly be changes to the Canucks roster over the summer, but there’s no guarantee they’ll find anyone able to give more than the guy they’ve got.

At times—perhaps too often—during his time as a Vancouver Canuck, Kyle Wellwood has been difficult to figure out. But in the end, he may be even tougher to do without.

Jeff Paterson is a talk show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio, Team 1040. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/patersonjeff.

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Adam Snyder
It's great to hear that someone else has seen that Kyle Wellwood is a special hockey player when it comes to his soft hands and creative hockey smarts.
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Ian Gillis
I agree Adam, it's a shame that the Canucks haven't picked him up yet for the 10-11 season. His stats don't show that he earned more than one win in the shoot-out last year, those extra points can really help to win a division so competative
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