Alex Burrows says he’s not only content with his demotion, he’s used to skating behind Radim Vrbata on the depth chart.
The 33-year-old Burrows had been slotted in the enviable position of manning the right wing of the Sedin twins, one of the NHL’s most dangerous playmaking duos.
But when the Vancouver Canucks’ new general manager, Jim Benning, handed free agent Vrbata a two-year, $10-million contract on July 2, the deal came with an unwritten clause.
“He was saying that they were looking for somebody to play with Sedins and that they think I could be the guy,” Vrbata, also 33, told reporters upon his signing. “When I think about the way they play, that kind of suits my game, I think. They like lots of give-and-go’s and they like to get open for each other. I think that’s something that I like to do, too.”
So Burrows, in Benning’s mind, has been bumped down to the club’s second unit, which will be centred by Nick Bonino and feature either Zack Kassian or Jannik Hansen on the left side.
“Funny story,” Burrows tells Sportsnet. He was in a similar position 14 years ago.
As 19-year-olds, Burrows and Vrbata played for the QMHL’s Shawinigan Cataractes.
“He was a first-liner drafted by Colorado,” Burrows recalls. “I was a fourth-liner that no one really knew about. We had a good time that year, but we lost in the final, which was disappointing. Throughout the last 12, 13 years we’ve always talked to each other a bit or in warm-ups said hi to each other. I’d like to think we have a good relationship.”
With injuries limiting Burrows to just 49 games in 2013-14, the Point-Claire, Que., native scored just five goals and 10 assists—his lowest totals in seven years. His shooting percentage—the one statistic he monitors—fell to a miniscule 4.8 percent, 23rd on the team. (In comparison, Vrbata converted 7.6 percent of his shots for 20 goals last season.)
“Throughout my career, I normally score on 10 to 12 per cent of the shots I take,” says Burrows, who scored on 14.1 percent of his shots as recently as 2011-12. “Every nine or 10 shots I should get a goal. So sometimes I tell myself to shoot more and get more pucks toward the net.”
Vrbata taking Burrows’ place alongside his ping-pong nemeses, Henrik and Daniel, or swiping some of his power-play time doesn’t bother him, he says.
“The team winning games is way more important than me scoring goals with the twins,” says Burrows.
Of course, Benning can make all the suggestions he wants, but head coach Willie Desjardins will be the one juggling the lines.
Desjardins already made a point to meet in-person with Burrows last month in Montreal. The first-time NHL coach told Burrows that he wants him to be a leader in the dressing room this season and contribute more offensively. In part, one presumes, to make up for the loss of Ryan Kesler and his team-high 25 goals.
Although the new-look Canucks dealt Kesler to the Ducks—“PK, power play, five on five, face-offs… he was a horse for us for a long time,” Burrows says—the changes the team made to its front office, from the president on down, have been embraced by Burrows.
“Trevor [Linden] is a guy that really cares about the Canucks, being drafted by them. He means a lot to this city. He really likes the organization, likes the logo and wants to do well,” Burrows says. “And he’s surrounded himself with a good GM and a good coach, so we’re looking good. Now it’s up to us to prove we can win some games.”
And up to Burrows to prove that he can stay healthy, click with Bonino and rediscover his nose for the net.