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As debuts go, it didn't rank up there with the Beatles at Shea Stadium for immediate, jaw-dropping impact.

About the best thing that could be said for Mats Sundin's debut in a Vancouver Canucks uniform is he now has one NHL game under his belt this season - and things can only get better.

Officially, the Sundin era with Vancouver began 1 minute 11 seconds into last night's game against the Edmonton Oilers, when the former Toronto Maple Leafs captain jumped over the boards, replacing Ryan Kesler.

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Immediately booed by the capacity crowd at Rexall Place - there must be disgruntled Toronto fans everywhere these days - Sundin tried to put a hit on defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky deep in the Oilers' zone and then skated almost 100 feet directly to the Canucks' bench to get off the ice.

It was like that most of the night. Sundin was told to keep his shifts short - and he followed that instruction closely. He looked as if he didn't want to be a liability at a time when his skating legs - and his hands - clearly weren't there yet.

In the first period, Sundin played only five shifts, lasting a total of 3:08, mostly on a line with Mason Raymond and fellow former Leaf Kyle Wellwood.

It was a little better in the second: nine shifts for a total of 5:29. By the third period, he was showing his lack of conditioning.

In total, Sundin played 15:02 and recorded no shots, points or penalty minutes.

"Obviously, it's not a perfect situation coming in in the middle of the season like this," Sundin said yesterday before the game. "I have to work every game now to get back to where I want to be."

And that isn't going to happen overnight.

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The Canucks were playing their 42nd game of the season, or the start of the official second half, when the overall pace of NHL play tends to quicken again.

Sundin looked the way he might in the first exhibition game of the year: out of sync and a half-step slower than usual.

"I've seen guys come in after a layoff like this and play great and I've seen other guys that come in and it takes them a couple or three weeks to get up to speed," Oilers head coach Craig MacTavish said.

Sundin looks as if he will fall into the latter category. Thankfully, the Canucks, who rank fifth in the Western Conference standings, can afford to be patient as Sundin sheds the rust and finds his rhythm.

Sundin, for his part, was gracious in a lengthy day-of-game exchange with reporters, who wanted to know, among other things, if he felt like a rental player in Vancouver, coming in as he did halfway through the season.

"I don't know," Sundin said. "To me, if I wanted a chance to play this year, this was my only way to approach it - and start playing at this point.

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"I've felt very welcome coming into the group. The guys have been great to me. I feel very much a part of the team and will try to do my very best in this situation."

Sundin wasn't an overnight sensation for his new club, but given the timing of his return, it was unreasonable to expect he would be.

He has been, for accounting purposes, on the Canucks' payroll since Dec. 19, a day after he signed with the club. On Jan. 15, the club's next payday, he'll receive his $4-million (U.S.) signing bonus. The remaining $1-million in base salary will be paid out in twice monthly increments over the final 3½ months of the season.

Only then will the Canucks know whether their investment in Sundin represented good value or not.

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