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By Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor - Archive - Email
Canucks in good shape as Kesler returns
Vancouver Canucks The Vancouver Canucks are on a path to return to the playoffs.
Philadelphia, PA ( - The Vancouver Canucks understandably were sellers at last season's trade deadline, and they kept on dealing after the campaign was over.

Some of those trades, including the one that sent Ryan Kesler to Anaheim, made the Canucks a younger team, and presumably one that would struggle to compete for a playoff spot this season.

Instead, when Kesler and the Ducks visit Vancouver on Thursday the Canucks will have a chance to take over first place in the Pacific Division from Anaheim.

The Canucks may not have Kesler or Roberto Luongo anymore, but they've gotten by just fine without them. Entering Thursday's action, Vancouver is boasting a 13-6-0 record this season and is just one point behind the Ducks for first place in the division and the top spot in the Western Conference.

Jim Benning should be given the lion's share of the credit for retooling the Canucks and setting them on a path to return to the playoffs.

Benning was hired to replace general manager Mike Gillis, who was fired last April, and he quickly put his stamp on the team. To the surprise of nobody, the new GM parted ways with head coach John Tortorella and replaced him with Willie Desjardins, bringing Tortorella's brief and catastrophic tenure behind the Canucks bench to a merciful end.

However, when Benning traded away Kesler during the NHL's draft weekend, the media narrative strongly hinted the Canucks were entering a rebuilding phase. Benning dismissed the notion his club was rebuilding and instead talked about putting a "winning" team on the ice this season.

Of course, nobody took Benning seriously, not even after he signed Ryan Miller to a three-year deal to take over the goaltending duties that once were shared by Luongo and Cory Schneider, before both netminders were dealt in the span of less than a year.

Coming off a poor playoff performance with St. Louis last spring, the 34-year- old Miller was thought to be on the decline. His 12-3-0 record this season obviously suggests the former longtime Buffalo netminder was a good fit for the Canucks.

Benning also chose wisely by adding winger Radim Vrbata through free agency and picking up centerman Nick Bonino in the Kesler deal. Vrbata has helped reinvigorate the Sedin twins, who did not perform well under Tortorella's restrictive system, and has eight goals and seven assists while playing on the top line.

Bonino, meanwhile, has done an excellent job taking over Kesler's role on the second line. Bonino quietly posted 22 goals and 49 points for the Ducks last season, and with seven goals and eight assists in 19 tilts with Vancouver, the 26-year-old pivot is on pace to eclipse those numbers in 2014-15. He also comes at less than half the price of Kesler, who carries a cap hit of $5 million a season through 2015-16.

Maybe the Canucks' quick start under Benning is really all about addition by subtraction. Not by trading away Kesler, of course, but by ridding themselves of both Gillis and Tortorella. It didn't take long to see Torts was an awful fit for the organization, and Gillis' decision to fire Alain Vigneault to hire him was just one of his many questionable moves at the end of his run as GM.

The Canucks suffered through a steady fall from the heights of a Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 2011, and the franchise was obviously dysfunctional by the time Gillis got the axe last spring. As bleak as things were at that time, credit should be given to Benning and Vancouver's front office for not blowing the whole thing up and starting over.

Upon his highly anticipated return to Vancouver, Kesler had time to speak with the media about coming back home. He also spoke about his departure from the Canucks and how the trade to the Ducks came to pass.

"Talking with Jim (Benning) and (president of hockey operations) Trevor (Linden) over the summer, I just think we decided that it was time to move on," Kesler said. "As hard of a decision that it was to waive my no-trade clause, it was something that had to be done."

Kesler is probably right that it was time to move on, and he's doing just fine with a Ducks team that expects to be a contender for the Stanley Cup. Still, he has to be surprised to see his old team sitting neck-and-neck with his new one.