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Kesler expected to return to Canucks lineup Friday against Stars

VANCOUVER - Ryan Kesler no longer has to worry about wearing a grey jersey in practice.

After having discarded the grey duds that signal an injured player, he is slated to put on a regular Canucks jersey Friday as Vancouver (8-2-2) hosts the Dallas Stars (7-6-1).

Barring an unexpected change, Kesler will play for the first time since the opening round of last spring's playoffs. He spent the off-season and NHL lockout recuperating from shoulder and wrist injuries that bothered him last season and required surgery.

"My jersey colour changed, and I felt good out there," said Kesler after a practice Thursday.

Kesler wore a blue jersey after instead of the grey one that had warned players not to hit him. The discarding of the grey jersey signalled that he has been cleared for contact. Coach Alain Vigneault confirmed he was also medically cleared to play a game.

"There's all indication that he's ready to go," said Vigneault.

The Canucks freed up a roster spot for Kesler by placing Manny Malhotra on injured reserve Thursday for the balance of the regular season and playoffs. General manager Mike Gillis said Malhotra has not adapted sufficiently since suffering a career-threatening eye injury in March 2011, and therefore is at risk of a serious injury.

Kesler's hiatus was longer than expected. Vigneault noted he was expected to be out five months, but the centre has been sidelined upwards of 10 months.

The coach said Kesler looked really good while playing a regular shift and on a power-play unit in practice. Kesler has also been practising at a full-pace after keeping his conditioning level extremely high during his recovery.

But Vigneault plans to keep Kesler's ice time at a "reasonable" level. Before his injury he was the most-used forward.

Don't expect that to be the case against Dallas, Vigneault warned.

"We'll feel the game out (Friday), see how he's doing," said Vigneault.

Kesler did not acknowledge that he was going to play. He was just glad to be one of the boys in blue.

"It was good having a line out there, and it was good being involved in, really, my first full practice with the team and not being an extra guy out there," he said.

Kesler's return helps solidify a second line that has been in a state of shuffle as a result of injuries and the absence of winger David Booth (groin), who continued to wear a grey jersey Thursday as he took part in practice, and his return date is uncertain.

Kesler skated between Chris Higgins and Zack Kassian and will likely do the same against the Stars.

"(Kesler) and (Higgins), in the past, have played some good hockey together, and I like the way (Kassian) is playing right now," said Vigneault. "That's a big line. It's a line that can bring that physical dimension, plus real good puck pursuit, plus real good speed."

Kesler said he is looking forward to playing alongside six-foot-three Kassian in a game. The veteran centre is impressed by the 22-year-old winger's handiwork with the puck and his skating and passing abilities.

"He does all those little things well," said Kesler. "If I do get a chance to play with him, I think we'll fit and work well together."

Notes: The Stars returned six-foot-seven defenceman Jamie Oleksiak to Texas of the AHL on Thursday after deploying him for six NHL games. Oleksiak's nickname is "Big Rig."

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