Versatile Mikael Samuelsson helps shaky Vancouver Canucks

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When the Vancouver Canucks went out and signed well-travelled veteran free agent Mathieu Schneider in the off-season, the hope was that he would come in and bolster the hockey club’s power play. However, due to off-season shoulder surgery, Schneider has yet to suit up in a Canuck uniform. Yet through the first two-and-a-half weeks of the season, the team had the best power play in the National Hockey League.

One of the main reasons for that has been the play of another well-travelled veteran free agent with the initials M.S. Seven games into the new season, Mikael Samuelsson was leading the Canucks with four goals—all but one with the man advantage—and the 32-year-old appears to be fitting nicely into a new city and a new system, after spending the past four years with the Detroit Red Wings.

The Canucks believed Samuelsson had the potential to be more of a scorer than he’d been in Motown, where he was forced to focus on being a better two-way player, leaving the scoring to superstars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Only once in his eight years in the league has Samuelsson cracked the 20-goal mark (he had 23 in 2005-06, his first year in Detroit), and his career best for power-play markers in a season is seven.

Based on his early performance with the Canucks, Samuelsson gives every reason to believe he’s on his way to establishing some new career highs, but he admits that right now he’s not concerned with those things. He’s just working hard to feel at home with his new team and teammates.

“It’s going to take more than a week or two to get a sense of what other people are going to do and for them to learn what I’m doing,” the native of Mariefred, Sweden, told the Straight after a recent practice at UBC. “But I’m learning every day, and the biggest key for me is to develop the game we play here and learn this system.”

One of the most impressive attributes Samuelsson has demonstrated in his short time with the Canucks is his versatility. He started the year skating on the team’s second line with Ryan Kesler and rookie Sergei Shirokov, but with the team forced to adapt in the absence of Daniel Sedin (broken foot), Samuelsson has taken shifts with any combination of Kesler, Mason Raymond, Alex Burrows, and Henrik Sedin—all without missing a beat. On top of that, Samuelsson has been employed on the point on the red-hot power play.

With his laid-back personality, Samuelsson seems suited to life on the West Coast. And he claims it doesn’t matter to him how he’s used by Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault—just so long as he’s used.

“I’m so glad I’m part of it,” he says. “Really, I don’t care what I play. I feel comfortable on the point on the power play, but I feel like I can do some damage in front [of the net], too.”

That’s been apparent in the early going, with Samuelsson scoring his goals in a number of ways: a deflection, a rebound, and a couple while parked at the side of the net. A noted shooter (he led the team and was in the NHL’s top three with 38 shots through eight games), Samuelsson likes to have the puck on his stick, although not for long. And he says that as the season wears on, his teammates will start to figure out his tendencies, which should lead to more and better scoring chances for everyone.

“I’ve told them: ”˜Just give me the puck and I’ll do the rest,’ ” he says with a laugh. “I like to shoot the puck, so I tell them to drive hard to the net. And we have to keep communicating. That’s a big key. It’s not just on the ice; you have to talk to each other off the ice. It’s the small things that usually make you connect.”

Early in his career, Samuelsson bounced around the NHL with the San Jose Sharks, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Florida Panthers, before finding his comfort zone in Detroit and winning a Stanley Cup with the Red Wings in 2008 and getting back to the final last spring.

Now he’s hoping to bring some of that experience he gained with the league’s best organization to the Canucks and help them reach new heights. But before his team has a chance to take flight on a lengthy playoff journey, Samuelsson is hoping to take a ride of his own—one he purchased at a recent charity event.

“I bought a helicopter flight over the city, so that’s something I want to do this winter or next spring,” he says of getting a bird’s-eye view of his new hockey home and surroundings. “So far, I’ve concentrated on hockey, but I’ve heard Vancouver is a great city, and from what I’ve seen I can tell it is.”

Although Samuelsson is off to a quick start on the ice and seems to be enjoying his first few months in Vancouver, he’d surely find it even better if the Canucks could get some stability in their play. It’s been a bumpy first few weeks for the hockey team, with injuries and inconsistency, but Samuelsson has been one of the club’s better players, and he is proving to be a solid acquisition.

The Canucks hope he can maintain his scoring touch, and they can’t wait to see what their power play will look like when Samuelsson and Schneider are in the lineup together.

Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio, Team 1040. E-mail him at jeff.paterson@team1040.ca.

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