A recent Sports Illustrated poll asked NHL players to pick the most overrated players in the NHL. Toronto’s Dion Phaneuf earned the dubious crown, while two Vancouver Canucks made the top ten: Roberto Luongo and Ryan Kesler.
Luongo’s inclusion does not surprise. His big contract and spotty playoff record creates an accepted perception that he is overrated. Rightly or wrongly perception often is reality.
But many Canucks fans have taken exception to Kesler’s inclusion. After all, the swashbuckling Kesler is the people’s MVP.
Ultimately Sports Illustrated’s poll is nothing more than a stunt. The grating Kesler is not overly well liked by his peers across the league, so it should be no big surprise that he was selected. After all, this is more of a least-popular poll than anything.
Yet there are grains of truth in the idea that Kesler is overrated.
Offensively, Kesler’s rise to elite status is a direct benefit of power play ice time with the Sedin twins. Away from Daniel, Henrik and Alex Burrows Kesler has been hard to match with compatible linemates to form a truly dominant second line.
His defensive game is strong, but so much stronger since the arrival of Manny Malhotra. Last season in particular, and noticeably more so as this season progresses and he recovers from his eye injury, it is Malhotra who gets key defensive zone starts. While Kesler is the shut-down guy, Malhotra is the key situational defensive centre.
His biggest supporters still believe he, not Henrik Sedin, should be the Canucks captain. He plays with heart and desire, something the Canucks lack, they say. He can do that without any letters on his jersey, but does so inconsistently. He was the first man on the scene when Brad Marchand cheap-shotted Sami Salo. It could be argued that that was a prime opportunity, being a regular season game, for the Canucks to make a statement. Rightfully or wrongfully, Kesler did nothing.
Kesler may or may not be overrated, but at the same time we can not understate his importance to the Canucks success. He led the Canucks past Nashville last playoffs, and was even more impressive in his shutting down of Jonathan Toews in the Chicago series. He is an integral piece of the Canucks’ vaunted special teams. And at his very best he sets the Canucks pulse.
That being said, for three playoff seasons in a row now he has been physically decimated to the point where he can barely contribute by the playoffs’ end. This must be a big concern for the Canucks. That’s why they went out and got Malhotra in the first place, only to lose Malhotra for most of the playoffs with that scary eye injury. They need to know they can count on Kesler to be there for the entire playoff run.
Why coach Alain Vigneault keeps insisting on wearing down Kesler with big minutes in essentially meaningless regular season games at rookie Cody Hodgson’s expense is beyond me. Coach V should be using that time to fast track Hodgson’s progression so that he is ready to play a bigger role come playoff time, whether that role is to take over more of Kesler’s offensive responsibilities or to spot Kesler for his inevitable playoff injuries.
Hodgson is slowly starting to press the issue on his own, thanks to his success in jump starting the Canucks second power play unit. So far Vigneault has insisted on sheltering the rookie’s minutes. Hopefully Vigneault is starting to realize that it is Hodgson who very well might be the Canucks secret weapon come the 2012 playoffs.
Alex Edler may be an All Star this year, but Smithers’ Dan Hamhuis has been the Canucks best defenseman since the season started. Edler, on pace for 60 points, is flashy but inconsistent. Some shifts he looks like Shea Weber’s equal, but on other shifts he has more spectacular giveaways than Oprah.
Hamhuis is understated and steady. He is the rock to defense partner Kevin Bieksa’s roll. The duo make up arguably the top shutdown tandem in the league. Hamhuis quietly is the steadying influence on the Canucks blue line. Had he not gotten hurt in the Stanley Cup final there very well may have been a Stanley Cup parade down Main Street in Smithers last summer.
All Star? Maybe not. But Hamhuis is the Canucks best defenseman.
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