Kuzma: Alex Burrows sees the writing on the wall: It says ‘Vrbata’
Veteran winger calling possibility of new linemates a 'fresh start'
The curious nature of those affected in the reshaping of the Vancouver Canucks extends 3,700 kilometres.
The future will be on display Monday when a prospects camp opens at UBC, but last Wednesday’s signing of unrestricted free agent winger Radim Vrbata had a here-and-now impact in Montreal. That’s where Alex Burrows trains in the offseason, and he immediately knew what he’ll be up against in the battle to keep patrolling the wing on a line with Henrik and Daniel Sedin.
After all, the right-shot Vrbata, who has a two-year, $10-million-US contract, is a perfect fit for the creative symmetry of the first line. But any line needs both skill and will elements, and Burrows has a book on Vrbata. They were QMJHL teammates with the Shawinigan Cataractes in the 2000-01 season where Vrbata put up 56 goals and 120 points in 55 games to place sixth in league scoring.
Burrows had 16 goals and 30 points as the junior powerhouse went 54-10-6-2 before losing in the conference final. Fast forward to today, and Burrows knows this much: Vrbata has had a 35-goal NHL season, is coming off 20 with the defensive-minded Arizona Coyotes and will aid a top-six mix in the absence of the traded Ryan Kesler.
“We go way back, and it seems like it’s gone full circle for us,” Burrows said of Vrbata.
“He’s got great skills and it’s going to be good. He brings a lot of speed and has really good poise with the puck and is able to find the back of the net.
“He works extremely hard and is a good power-play and shootout guy. He’s the kind of player we’ve needed.”
That’s exactly what was often said of Burrows, especially after he hit a career-high 35 goals with the Sedins in 2009-10, followed by respectable 26- and 28-goal campaigns.
However, with three injuries last season and just five goals in 49 games — including 35 outings before finally scoring after he fractured a foot in the season opener — the meagre return on the first year of a four-year, $18-million extension raised eyebrows.
Especially when Burrows had pocketed $6 million last season to start the front-loaded deal. A broken jaw in his 17th game didn’t help, but Burrows would strike for four goals and eight points during a five-game span in March. Then he broke a thumb.
And now at age 33, Burrows has to prove to new general manager Jim Benning and new coach Willie Desjardins that he can return to being an agitating net-front presence who’s willing to set screens, deflect pucks and deposit rebounds.
He should get some help in that department with projected third-line winger Derek Dorsett, but how the second line shapes up will be a major camp curiosity. Nick Bonino will be the centre with Burrows on one wing — unless he unseats Vrbata — but how the re-signed Zack Kassian, still maturing Nicklas Jensen and Chris Higgins project is worth watching, because the Canucks have a surplus of forwards.
“I’m really excited because it’s a fresh start for everyone and you want a team where everybody pushes each other to be better and compete for jobs,” said Burrows. “It’s going to be interesting. I want to show what I can do and log some good minutes and start having some good games.
“For me at this point of my career, it’s about winning games and getting to the playoffs. We’re in a tough division and a tough conference, but if we can stay healthy and have 20 guys buying into Willie’s game plan and get good goaltending, you can compete with the best teams in the West.”
The Canucks went 1-8-2 in Pacific Division road games last season and were outscored 35-14. Part of their unravelling were crucial 1-0 road losses to the Coyotes on Jan. 18 and March 4.
“The last couple of years, it’s been more important for me to make the young guys feel comfortable and our leadership group will be really important,” added Burrows. “We all have to push for the same goal. Our new management knows we need to get younger and we have some good prospects pushing for jobs and that’s exciting. But we still have a veteran group that wants to win and you need that good mix. I think it’s looking good.”
That’s what you’d expect Burrows to say. The Canucks are better equipped than they were a week ago to get back to the playoffs, with the free-agent signings of Vrbata and goalie Ryan Miller, but they’re still not in the skill and size class of division behemoths. Trying to retool on the fly and return to the postseason is a double-edged sword for Benning, but if Miller can steal wins and Vrbata can flaunt his shootout skills — he’s fourth in career shootout goals, with 35 — the Canucks can at least push for a wild-card spot.
“We have a lot of guys who want to play better than they did last year,” stressed Burrows. “I’ve heard a lot of good things about Willie in that he’s an honest guy who knows his hockey and knows what system we need to play. I’m looking forward to it.”
Prospects camp: Three to see
1. Dane Fox, 20, C/LW, Erie (OHL) G: 64, A: 43, Pts. 107, PIM: 122. Skinny: The 64-goal question: How will eye-popping junior stats play out at the next level where he needs an all-around game? Snubbed in successive NHL drafts for off-ice issues and a checkered OHL career, wants to prove critics wrong, be a Dave Bolland 2.0.
2. Bo Horvat, 19, C, London (OHL) G: 30, A: 44, Pts. 74, PIM: 36. Skinny: Where is his head at? Had five goals, 11 points in nine games as Knights lost in the second round of OHL playoffs. Ninth overall pick in 2013 NHL draft, then did zip in three Mem Cup losses and now sees a Canucks roster loaded down the middle. London calling?
3. Ben Hutton, 21, D, University of Maine G: 15, A: 14, Pts. 29 PIM: 8. Skinny: The next fifth-round find after Kevin Bieksa (2001) and Frank Corrado (2011)? Drafted in 2012, the 6-foot-3 defenceman led all NCAA blueliners with 15 goals in 35 games, a school record, including nine on the power play. A hard wrist shot often finds the net.
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