VANCOUVER - Kyle Wellwood is glad to be dodging verbal shots from his former Vancouver Canucks teammates instead of stray dogs in the streets of Moscow.
“I didn't get chased by any, but they warn you,”Wellwood said Sunday before the San Jose Sharks faced Vancouver in the opening game of the Western Conference final. "If you're driving your car, you'll see 12 dogs running in a pack together in the city.”
Last fall, Wellwood was unwanted by Vancouver after two seasons there, as well as any other NHL club. So he opted to sign with Mytischi Atlant, a Kontinental Hockey League club based outside of Moscow. But Wellwood, criticized in the NHL for lackadaisical play, soon fell out of favour with the new coach at Atlant who replaced his fired predecessor.
Wellwood, a native of Windsor, Ont., who turns 28 on Monday, quickly soured on life in Russia and looked to return to the NHL. He signed with the St. Louis Blues but first had to clear waivers because he began the season in Europe. That allowed San Jose to claim him.
“It just ended up a lucky break and I ended up on San Jose,”said Wellwood, who had eight points in 25 games in Russia while often being a healthy scratch.
San Jose coach Todd McLellan said Wellwood's experience in Russia has inspired him.
“Welly's been a very motivated young man since he's been with us,”said McLellan.“His journey overseas, I don't think, went over very well.
"He's got a second lease on life here with our hockey club, and I think he wants to do well.”
Wellwood has also provided motivation to the Canucks. Even before the season started, a former teammate called Wellwood a“weasel”after Wellwood suggested the Canucks didn't have the mental fortitude necessary to excel in late playoff rounds.
“I guess (trash talk) is starting,”said Wellwood.“You certainly expect it from those guys.
"I'm probably going to hear a lot worse on the ice…There's going to be a lot of talk throughout the series, I'm sure.”
McLellan said Wellwood has benefited from playing on a regular line the past three months. Normally a centre, he has found a home as a winger on San Jose's third line with Joe Pavelski and Torrey Mitchell.
“We've slotted him into a position where we think he's comfortable,”said McLellan.“He's had some common linemates for about three months now.
"They play very well together. You'd never think they would because they're all right-handed shots (and) they're all natural centre men. I don't know if they're all really fast, but they just seem to have some type of chemistry—and Welly's a huge part of that.”
Wellwood, a fan favourite during his days as a Canuck after starting his NHL career in Toronto, expects to face external pressure in this series but doesn't appear bothered by it.
He did not expect to reach the Western Conference final for the first time in his career when he signed with St. Louis.
“I was just trying to get a chance to play in the NHL,”said Wellwood.“But that happens to a few players a year that catch a lucky break—and here I am playing on a good team.”
As for the experience in Russia, Wellwood has had enough.
“It was interesting,”he said.“It's not something I'd do again.”
NOTES—Winger Mikael Samuelsson remained out of Vancouver's lineup with an undisclosed lower body injury. He has not played since Game 5 of the second round against Nashville . . . The Sharks did not hold a morning skate Sunday, opting for team meetings instead because of the early faceoff time. Vancouver, meanwhile, held an optional skate.