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Vancouver Canucks' Ryan Kesler celebrates his goal against the New Jersey Devils during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Vancouver, B.C., on Monday November 1, 2010.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

In the incredible decline of the Vancouver Canucks, the fate of Ryan Kesler's right knee is suddenly central to the team's future.

Kesler was injured Wednesday night in Winnipeg and is returning to Vancouver to have his right knee assessed with an MRI.

The Canucks – who have in record time gone from a contender in a slump to a franchise rebuilding – had tried to trade the 29-year-old star forward last week at the NHL trade decline but turned down deals. A Kesler trade was imagined as the pivot point to overhaul the team in one swoop but offers fell short of the Canucks's desire for a player, prospect and draft pick. Kesler, agitated at Vancouver's poor prospects, wanted to move to a potential winner – and after last week's no deal attention turned towards a transaction at the draft.

Now, however, regardless of the severity of the Kesler's knee injury, the Canucks have been dealt a big blow. If teams weren't willing to pile the table high with offerings ahead of this year's playoffs for healthy Kesler, it seems available deals won't be better in late June at the draft, two months before Kesler's 30th birthday on Aug. 31.

Kesler won the Selke Trophy in 2010-11 but thereafter struggled for several years with injuries, hip and shoulder surgery, and his game only returned to its best this season. But once again he is hurt. In Winnipeg, with about four minutes left in the second period, Kesler's right knee was slammed and somewhat twisted in a collision with the Jets centre Jim Slater. The two were going after a loose puck near the Canucks bench in the Winnipeg defensive zone.

Slater got two minutes for tripping, and Kesler briefly returned to the bench before gingerly skating unaided across the ice to the exit to the Canucks locker room. Afterwards Slater said he had lined up to hit Kesler and "he kind of bailed there at the last second. I didn't stick my knee out or anything. I thought I actually took the worst of it."

Kesler is returning to Vancouver as the Canucks continue on a four-game road trip and likely will be assessed at the False Creek Healthcare Centre, a private facility near Rogers Arena that sponsors the Canucks and whose services include diagnostic imaging such as MRIs.

With only 14 games left in the season for Vancouver, even a minor injury means Kesler could miss much of the time remaining. A modest knee sprain would require several weeks out at least, with just one month remaining in the regular-season calendar. Also, Kesler probably won't feel rushed to return, as the Canucks have a near-zero shot at the postseason. Kesler had already been dealing with an injured hand, hurt at the Winter Olympics.

Kesler has once more been the heart of the Canucks this season. He leads all NHL forwards in ice time, playing 22:08 a night, several minutes more than he has ever played before. In 67 games he has 40 points, and his 22 goals leads the Canucks.