Canucks a team to watch after Olympics

Ryan Kesler, center, and the Sedins may have some new teammates by the NHL trade deadline. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

NHL team executives are following these Olympic hockey games a little differently than the rest of us. For example, when Canucks assistant GM Laurence Gilman got word that Ryan Kesler went down in pain after blocking an Ilya Kovalchuk shot with his hand during Saturday’s thriller between the U.S. and Russia, his mind immediately started racing.

Is he hurt? How severe is the injury? Does he need surgery? If he needs surgery, can he return to North America to get it done?

Kesler eventually returned to the game, but not without causing panic in Vancouver.

“Needless to say, I was quite relieved,” Gilman said when we chatted Monday afternoon. “These games are like NHL playoff games. Players are giving their all every shift, every period, and injuries are a byproduct of any game being played. I felt going into the Olympics -- we had seven players playing -- I felt there was a certain degree of possibility and probability that one of them would sustain injury.”

For a team like the Canucks, who limped into the break, getting their players back in one piece is the most important conclusion of this tournament. Vancouver went into the break on a seven-game losing streak, banged up and swirling in distractions surrounding the suspension and reinstatement of coach John Tortorella. There’s not a team that benefited more from the shutdown of the NHL.

Now, watching the tournament and seeing Canucks contributing on contending teams is a reminder of just how much talent there still is in Vancouver despite the struggles. Roberto Luongo may have to wait for Carey Price to stumble for more playing time, but he got a shutout in his only start for Team Canada. Alexander Edler has a goal and assist for Sweden while Daniel Sedin has three points in three games.

And then there’s Kesler, as important a forward as there is on Team USA. When he went down against the Russians, it wasn’t just Canucks employees watching closely; an entire nation of hockey fans held their breaths. He is the only American forward averaging over 18 minutes of ice time per game, is a team-best plus-4 and has a goal and assist.

“In many ways, he’s the engine that drives [teams],” Gilman said. “Take him out of our lineup, it really has a significant impact.”

If the Canucks can survive this tournament without any significant injuries, they will immediately become one of the most fascinating teams to watch coming out of the break. Their losing streak dropped them outside a playoff position, where they currently sit one point behind the Dallas Stars in the final wild-card spot, although Dallas has two games in hand.

The hope is that Henrik Sedin, Chris Tanev and Kevin Bieksa are all ready to go after the break, which would provide a huge boost, along with the return of the Olympians.

And they’ll need those players immediately. Before the March 5 trade deadline, not only do the Canucks play the Central-leading Blues, they also have games against the Coyotes and Wild, teams they need to beat to climb back into a playoff spot.

If the losing continues, the call for change in Vancouver will intensify.