Top Shelf: Canucks in good shape as Kesler returns

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

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