VANCOUVER, B.C. – Kyle Wellwood knew he was running out of chances.
When the Vancouver Canucks decided to recall the forward from the minors late last month, Wellwood was well aware that his NHL career was on the line.
“It would have been my last chance for sure, coming back,” Wellwood said Thursday. “I didn’t know how many games I would get.
“It was definitely my last chance to play in the NHL for a team if I would have messed it up again.”
Wellwood cleaned up his mess by scoring a goal and adding an assist against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Canucks lost the game but Wellwood showed enough to convince the Vancouver coaching staff he deserved another chance.
Heading into Thursday night’s game against the Phoenix Coyotes the former Toronto Maple Leaf was Vancouver’s leading goal-scorer having scored six in eight games. There were chants of “Wellwood, Wellwood” after he scored twice in a 4-0 win over Nashville Tuesday night.
It wasn’t that long ago those cheers were jeers.
When the season started Wellwood was the punchline for many local jokes after coach Alain Vigneault bluntly criticized the Windsor, Ont., native for showing up to training camp out of shape.
“There were some jokes that were funny,” said the 25-year-old. “Most of them were just bad.”
Going from zero to the Canucks’ new local hero hasn’t changed Wellwood’s demeanour. He remains soft spoken, almost shy.
“You get a sense of embarrassment from both of the situations,” he said. “When ever you get singled out it’s a different experience.
“You want people to be happy for you and enjoy watching you play. It’s a big part of the game.”
Vigneault has used Wellwood on the power play with Swedish twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin. He has been taking a regular shift on a line with Steve Bernier and Taylor Pyatt.
“Give him credit, he’s worked extremely hard,” said Vigneault. “He’s made the most of his second opportunity. We need his production right now to win games and he’s doing it for us.”
At five foot 10, Wellwood is the smallest skater on the Canucks roster. He isn’t the fastest player, doesn’t have a canon of a shot and isn’t the most physical. What he has is puck sense and soft hands.
“He’s really smart,” said forward Alex Burrows. “He’s got a lot of deception. He handles the puck really well.
“He’s patient with the puck. It’s probably his biggest quality. All those things together makes him a really good player.”
Wellwood was already being written off as a bust early in training camp when his fitness testing was one of the lowest on the team. The club put him on a special diet and Wellwood spent extra time with strength and conditioning coach Roger Takahashi.
He managed to make the team but played only one game, an embarrassing 5-1 loss in Washington, before the Canucks sent him to the minors. Wellwood was left in limbo because there wasn’t room for him on the roster of the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, so he returned to Vancouver.
“I was looking for a place to play,” Wellwood said. “I had no idea what was going to come next. I didn’t have a team. It was a difficult time.”
A rib injury to Pavol Demitra resulted in the Canucks recalling Wellwood. First he had to clear waivers and any team in the NHL could have claimed him for half of his salary of US$997,500. There were no takers.
“Fortunately there was a spot for me to play here and I got a fair amount of ice time right away,” Wellwood said. “It kind of worked out for me.”
Even bringing Wellwood to the Canucks was a gamble. General Manager Mike Gillis claimed him off waivers in July when the Maple Leafs cut him loose.
The Leafs had taken Wellwood 134th overall in the 2001 draft. He had 21 points (8-13) and a minus-12 rating in 59 games last season. He showed promise the previous season when he collected 42 points (12-30) in 48 games.
“I was happy they let me go,” said Wellwood. “We had our differences. We were both looking to move on to a different structure. I’m happy here.”
To stay happy, Wellwood knows he must continue to be productive.
“I’m playing well right now,” he said. “I have been feeling better on the ice. I am looking forward to playing the games. That’s a good sign.
“I feel confident on the ice. The goal is to compete every night and keep your confidence through as long a stretch as you can. Hopefully it can last really long.”