Above the 49: Kesler return makes Canucks a contender

The Vancouver Canucks might not have made a huge splash during last week's NHL trade deadline, but the return of Ryan Kesler to their lineup on Monday is enough to elevate them back to top contender status.

The addition of Kesler, especially if he can stay relatively healthy down the stretch, makes the Canucks arguably the deepest team at the center ice position in the Western Conference, ahead of even this season's powerhouse clubs in the Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks.

Including his comeback game on Monday against the Phoenix Coyotes, Kesler has seen action in just eight contests this season. He missed the first 12 games of this shortened campaign while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and, following a short-lived return to the lineup, sat out another 19 games after breaking his right foot.

But there is a sense among many observers that even during his limited action this season, Kesler seems to be displaying the form that he was showing during the 2010-11 campaign - the year he was named to the NHL All-Star Game for the first and only time to date in his career and captured the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the league's top defensive forward.

That also happened to be the year he had a career-high 41 goals to go with 73 points and added another seven goals and 19 points in the postseason to lead the Canucks all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.

It's too early to suggest whether Kesler can get fully back to playing at the level he was in 2010-11, but even something remotely resembling that would be a considerable boon for the Canucks. He's certainly shown his offensive game hasn't slipped up despite the amount of time he's been forced to sit out this season as he's notched two goals and six points in eight outings this season.

But Kesler's value to the team goes beyond just the points he puts up or even the fact he is one of the few players in Vancouver's lineup who can play in all situations, including both the penalty kill and the power play - the latter being an area the Canucks have struggled with significantly this season.

Rather, Kesler's biggest impact on the team is he strengthens a position that has been Vancouver's biggest weakness this season.

With Kesler healthy and the recent addition of Derek Roy along with incumbent No. 1 center Henrik Sedin, Vancouver now has three centers who would be considered a No. 1 center on most teams around the NHL, not to mention a very capable fourth-liner in Maxim Lapierre.

They are deeper today at that position than they were during their Stanley Cup run in 2011, when they were forced to use raw rookie Cody Hodgson and Alex Bolduc sparingly and interchangeably for the majority of that run.

Of course, there's still a lot that has to go right for the Canucks before they can be considered part of the upper echelon of teams in the league, one that has a realistic shot at winning it all this season. But they have to be feeling much better about their chances of making a Stanley Cup run today compared to just a week ago.

Now if only they can find a way to nurse Chris Tanev, Chris Higgins and David Booth back to health before the start of the playoffs.