VANCOUVER – Kyle Wellwood is winning the battle of the bulge, but he still must fight to earn himself a spot on the Vancouver Canucks NHL roster.
Wellwood, who the Canucks claimed off waivers from the Toronto Maple Leafs this summer, was given another fitness test Monday and “is now at an acceptable NHL standard,” said coach Alain Vigneault.
“It’s not in the average, but it’s acceptable,” said Vigneault. “Kyle has shown to us in the last two months he is committed to becoming the best hockey player he can.”
Vigneault harshly criticized Wellwood during the Canucks training camp earlier this month, saying the Windsor, Ont., native wasn’t in shape. He also threatened that if Wellwood’s fitness level didn’t improve, he won’t earn a spot on the team.
If Wellwood was angry or frustrated with Vigneault’s public tongue lashing he didn’t show it while talking with reporters after practice.
“It didn’t make much difference to me,” shrugged Wellwood, 25. “I thought he told the truth. I wasn’t at the level of the rest of the players.
“That wasn’t anything new to me. It’s just me focusing on getting there.”
Battling through three sports hernia surgeries and recovering from a broken right foot this spring hampered his training, Wellwood said.
“I knew exactly what kind of shape I was in,” he said. “It took a little extra time and I’m still working at getting to where I wanted to be.
“For me it’s a matter of getting my body in shape. I’ve been a good player in the league before. I know what it takes to put up points. If I get my body where it needs to be, which I think it is right now, I’m very confident I will get a spot.”
Wellwood has shown some flashes of what the Canucks were looking for when they claimed him off waivers in July. He scored one goal in regulation and notched another during the shootout in Vancouver’s 5-4 exhibition win over Anaheim Sunday.
In the three exhibition games Wellwood also has two assists.
“I thought the first two games I didn’t feel too good out there but the last game I started feeling good,” he said. “I think it’s come along. I’m starting to feel like a good player.”
Wellwood still hasn’t locked up a spot among the Canucks top six forwards.
Steve Bernier, who Vancouver obtained in a trade from Buffalo in the off-season, is looking to play on a line with Swedish twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Free-agent signing Pavol Demitra has looked good with Taylor Pyatt and Mason Raymond.
Jannik Hansen, who scored 21 goals in 50 games with the AHL Manitoba Moose last season, and first-round draft pick Cody Hodgson also haven’t looked out of place.
Wellwood said the Canucks have put him with a diet consisting largely of vegetables and lean meat. He’s lost eight pounds and is down to around 189 pounds.
He had climbed as high as 200 pounds and had not been under 195 “for a long time.”
Wellwood had 21 points (8-13) and a minus-12 rating in 59 games last season with Toronto, while earning US$950,000 in the final year of his contract. He showed promise the previous season when he collected 42 points (12-30) in 48 games.
The Leafs took Wellwood 134th overall in the 2001 draft but decided to cut him loose.
For most of his career scoring goals came naturally for Wellwood, which may have resulted in him letting his fitness level slip.
“That’s a big part of it,” he agreed. “I played on the power play and at times was on the ice where you are looking to score. Sometimes that doesn’t take as much energy and checking ability as the other players.
“That is part of not being in condition.”
Canuck centre Ryan Kesler said Wellwood’s fitness wasn’t a distraction in the dressing room.
“He’s a guy that lets things run off his back,” said Kesler. “He’s a good guy to have in the locker-room.
“He’s proven all the critics wrong right now. He’s gone out and proved it on the ice, which is good for him.”
Also Monday the Canucks surprised some people when Michael Grabner, the team’s first-round pick in the 2006 draft, was one of four players sent down to Manitoba. The right-winger from Villach, Austria, played in two exhibition games, scoring one goal.
Vigneault said Grabner has talent but needs to be more consistent.
“He needs to dominate the American league with his strengths,” said Vigneault. “He’s supposed to be an offensive player with great speed that can put the puck in the net.
“He did it last year at times. This year we expect him to do it and do it consistently. If he does that we’re confident we’re going to have a young man that can help us out in the future.”
Also sent to the Moose was defenceman Daniel Rahimi, and forwards Dan Gendur and Pierre-Cedric Labrie.