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No excuse for Canucks poor play, and Ryan Kesler won't save them

Photo from Flickr/taminator

It’s easy to spin the poor play of the Vancouver Canucks into a simple tale of rust and acclimation. The excuses are many. 

Their best all-around player, Ryan Kesler, is on the shelf. They’re without top-6 winger David Booth. They’re out of game shape from the lockout. Players are adjusting to new linemates and new positions. And in the case of games against the San Jose Sharks and Edmonton Oilers they’re playing teams who’ve had many of their best players playing competitive hockey in Europe or the AHL for months.

The loss of Kesler is hurting this team more than anyone anticipated. They’re struggling to win faceoffs and shutdown top opposition players. Alex Burrows’ move to center has been a surprising success, but hardly replicates the impact Kesler can have on a nightly basis, especially away from the puck.

Naturally the tendency is to look forward to that point on the horizon where Kesler returns to action, to save the proverbial day. By all estimations that won’t be too much longer, another five or six games, maybe a few more more. The trouble with that great hope though is that the return of Kesler is unlikely be the cure-all so many envision.

You need to crawl before you walk.

This team is having trouble with the most basic of basics: tape to tape passing, making simple plays under pressure, clearing the front of the net, picking up the trailer on the back-check. Monday nights game against the Los Angeles Kings could have doubled as a three-act play called “Comically Dangerous Passing.”

Ryan Kesler is a Selke Trophy winner and will individually help in all of these areas, but if the rest of the team doesn’t stop stuffing the puck into the back pocket of the oppositions best players, shortly before offering them a guided tour to the front of the net — period after period — then they’re all going nowhere fast.

Kesler will return after 10 months off with no hockey and having undergone two surgeries to his wrist and shoulder. His game is built on speed, aggression, and being able to unleash a ferocious wrist shot from anywhere suddenly. If he returns at anywhere close to his full potential it will be a miracle.

We’ve seen the man do some miraculous things, yes, but pinning the hopes of this team getting its collective act together on the basis of his return is folly — not to mention far too convenient a pass to grant the rest of the team for their play to this point.

It starts with the Sedin’s and the defense corps. They’re still the strengths of this team, and they’re strengths that have always leaned more heavily on intelligence and positioning than on conditioning and the ever-mysterious ‘game-shape’ metric. Which isn’t to say the Sedin’s aren’t notorious conditioning all-stars — they are — but we know them first and foremost as highly cerebral players who let their smarts do most of the heavy-lifting.

We’ve seen the classic Daniel and Henrik wizard act a few times so far in the first six games, but those moments have been few and far between and more often than not the line has been carried forward by the young Zack Kassian.

When they’re zeroed in, the Sedin’s are dangerous because they’re exhausting — pinning the opposition in its own end and cycling them down to empty lungs and poor decision making. Sooner or later they break you, expose weakness, and force mistakes and draw penalties. That’s not happening with any regularity at all. They’re making poor reads and sloppy passes and spending an alarming amount of time in their own end.

Which means they’re in better shape than most of the defense.

Who would have predicted that Keith Ballard and Chris Tanev would be the most consistent and reliable blueliners at any point this season? No one. But tragically, they are.

The top-four of Bieksa, Hamhuis, Garrison and Edler has unleashed a comedy of errors game after game, and there appears to be no end in sight.

This is a team built on redundancy. It’s composed to weather the storms that are inevitable in every NHL season — injuries, slumps, the unpredictable. They’ve lost arguably their best player and still have two Art Ross Trophy winners leading their offense. An unthinkable luxury. Their backup goaltender got to Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals and they have nine NHL defensemen, when other teams struggle to assemble five.

There are excuses for the way this team has played but none of them are good enough. And if the solution is to lean on Ryan Kesler as some sort of White Knight then this tale likely ends in tragedy — a potential unfulfilled.

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