Canucks' task to keep Kesler healthy

VANCOUVER -- The hits came exactly 1:19 apart in the third period. Both were jarring, bordering on dangerous. Both drew penalties. Both involved Vancouver center Ryan Kesler.

That Kesler got up after being rocked by the St. Louis Blues' Roman Polak and Alex Pietrangelo on Sunday night, apparently none the worse for wear, wouldn't be significant if it weren't the fact the rugged Kesler was playing in just his second game after coming back from offseason shoulder surgery.

And it wouldn't be significant if Kesler wasn't such a huge part of the Vancouver Canucks' goal of returning to the very top of the NHL heap.

So, even though GM Mike Gillis insisted in an interview before Sunday's game that he does not watch Kesler play with one hand over his eyes for fear of what might happen, there was nonetheless widespread relief at the outcome of the hits, if not the game, which the Blues won in a shootout.

Two seasons ago, Kesler was the game's best two-way forward, a guy that you talked about not just in terms of the Frank J. Selke Trophy -- which he won in 2011 -- but as a potential Hart Trophy candidate. On a team that features former Hart Trophy winner Henrik Sedin, that speaks volumes about Kesler's regard when he's at the peak of his powers.

We asked national analyst Kevin Weekes about the import of Kesler's return to the Canucks' lineup.

"How much ink do you have," he responded.

"A three-zone, all-situation player and impacts [the] game on offense and defensive side of the puck. Helps their speed and pace, best two-way forward in the NHL after [Pavel] Datsyuk."

Another national analyst said that the Canucks' lineup is "exposed" when Kesler is not playing.

And St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock said what makes the Canucks so dangerous and so difficult to game-plan against is that they are so big, fast and talented, which pretty much describes Kesler.

Although the Canucks are 0-1-1 since Kesler returned to action Friday night, it is not a reflection on his immediate impact. He scored against the Blues on a hard shot on the power play.

"It felt good. After basically 10 months of not playing a game and kind of sitting on the sidelines, it felt really good to be back out and compete again," Kesler told ESPN.com prior to Sunday's game.

Although the time away from both the game and his teammates was frustrating, he tried to focus on the task of getting healthy.

"I don't think discouraging's the right word. It's very hard. Mentally, for me, it was tough. It was very tedious work basically to go to the gym every day and just grind it out over and over and over again and skate by yourself, because I wasn't allowed to skate with any of the guys," Kesler said.

"That was probably the hardest thing was mentally just making sure you're focused and ready to get better and ready to get more healthy every day.

"It was a process, but that's finally in the rearview mirror and I can finally look back and all the hard work I did I can finally be like, it was worth that moment on the ice."

The key, now, if you're the Vancouver Canucks, is to keep Kesler upright and in that lineup for the balance of this 48-game season and into the playoffs.

To that end, Gillis was talking about modifying slightly not how Kesler plays but rather how much or in what circumstances he plays.

"He can play against anyone in the league," Gillis told ESPN.com prior to Sunday's 4-3 shootout loss to the Blues. "He's a huge part of this team."

Power play, penalty kill, against the opposing teams' top players. Every night. But Gillis believes that his team has enough depth and enough healthy players up and down the lineup that Kesler doesn't have to shoulder that entire load, at least not every night.

It's up to the Canucks to make sure that Kesler is put in situations "where he stays healthy for the entire season and the playoffs," Gillis said.

Playing the minutes and in the situations Kesler has traditionally taken on "takes its toll," Gillis said. So the team is looking at "moving some of those minutes around. That way we have a chance to keep him fresh."

Kesler, for his part, believes this latest rehabilitation stretch has made him wiser and better prepared to go the distance.

"I learned a lot about my body this time around. I learned a lot about injury prevention and nutrition and all that stuff. I don't have to change my game at all. Basically, I've got to do other stuff off the ice, but I'm playing the same game on the ice," Kesler said.

As for any notion of being fresher come the postseason, Kesler does not necessarily buy into that mythology.

"I've always felt fresh come playoff time. Obviously, you don't always have the success. I definitely thought even the last two playoffs I thought I played some good hockey," said Kesler, who was also a part of the U.S. silver-medal effort in Vancouver at the 2010 Olympics. Assuming good health, he be a lock to join the U.S. effort in Sochi a year from now.

That said, Kesler seems comfortable with the plan to ease him back into the lineup.

"Obviously, that's a factor; we play a lot of hockey in a short period of time. That's up to the coach; obviously he wants to manage my minutes off the start here, which I completely agree with. We talked about it," he said.

In the first game, for instance, Kesler played 17:27 but didn't play much on the penalty kill.

"Which was fine. They're easing me in, and that's the way it should be," he said.

On Sunday, he played 22:49, 41 seconds of which were spent killing penalties and 4:45 on the power play. He also missed in the shootout. And, oh yeah, got his bell rung twice. And never missed a beat.