VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Ryan Kesler was coy about his playing status, but Vancouver Canucks coach Alain Vigneault left little doubt his Selke Trophy-winning center would return to the lineup against the Dallas Stars on Friday.
Kesler, who has yet to play after offseason surgeries on his shoulder and wrist, was evasive despite taking regular line rushes and a spot on the top power play in practice Thursday, but Vigneault said he is "medically cleared to play."
"He looks real good on the ice, he was playing on a regular line today at practice, taking a regular shift on one of the power-play units, so I'll let you guys figure it out," Vigneault said. "There's all indications he's ready to go so unless something changes from here to tomorrow."
The Canucks are on a six-game win streak and atop the Northwest Division at 8-2-2 despite missing Kesler and fellow second-line forward David Booth, who injured his groin in preseason testing. But there is no question they are better with Kesler, who won the Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward in 2011, provides a net-front presence on the power play, and anchors the penalty kill.
Kesler hasn't played in 9-1/2 months after his recovery from shoulder surgery in May was complicated by the need for wrist surgery on the same left side in June. He rejoined the team at practice 10 days ago but said conditioning won't be an issue coming back.
"To be honest, I am feeling comfortable out there," Kesler said when asked if there was anything he still couldn't do. "Taking hits maybe and hitting, things like that, battling, but everything else is pretty good. We did a couple drills today in front of the net and I feel good."
Kesler pledged long ago not to return until he did. It's a lesson he's learned the hard way.
Notorious for pushing -- sometimes too hard -- to come back quickly from injuries, Kesler returned from hip surgery for the 2007 Stanley Cup Playoffs only to break his finger in the first game; he was so upset he asked the trainers to cut it off so he could keep playing.
Four years later, after almost singlehandedly carrying the Canucks past the Nashville Predators in the second round, Kesler injured his hip during the last game of the Western Conference Finals but managed to play through the Stanley Cup Final despite needing surgery shortly afterward.
The next season, he returned too soon and his play suffered, with his goal total falling from 41 to 22 in 2011-12.
After two surgeries last summer, he vowed not to rush back again.
"I haven't had any pain for a while, maybe a week, two weeks," Kesler said Thursday. "It's no fun not playing. I want to be out there, I want to help my teammates, but I've got to be patient and stick to the process."
That may include Vigneault backing off on Kesler's ice time, normally tops among all Canucks forwards, at the start.
"My initial thoughts are to keep minutes reasonable," Vigneault said, adding that Kesler has looked extremely fit in practice.
"This injury he had -- injuries -- enabled him to work out quite a bit," the coach said. "Initially it was supposed to be five months and we're closing in on 9 or 10 months here, so he's been working out with staff and he's in game shape. But practicing and playing are not the same. He's looked extremely good in practices. All the drills we've had him do, he's done at full pace and with real strong execution."
"I don't want to say he's surprised me but watching him and skating with him the past couple of weeks, he has pretty good hands for a big guy and he can skate and he can move and protects the puck real well," Kesler said of Kassian. "He does all those little things well, so if I do get a chance to play with him, I think we'll fit well together."
According to his coach, Kesler will find out for real Friday.
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