Kesler makes U.S. Olympic grade

 

Sochi: Centre put two injury-plagued seasons behind him and booked his berth to Russia

 
 
 
 
Canucks centre Ryan Kesler, left, stickhandles around Tampa Bay Lightning's Martin St. Louis on Wednesday.
 

Canucks centre Ryan Kesler, left, stickhandles around Tampa Bay Lightning's Martin St. Louis on Wednesday.

Photograph by: The Canadian Press, The Province

Ryan Kesler did not have a good game Wednesday.

But he did have a good day.

Kesler was named to the U.S. Olympic team, something that was no lock in the pre-season, according to an embedded ESPN report about the selection process.

This, even for a country that makes the Utica Comets look deep at centre. This, even though Kesler was a two-way force in 2010 on a line with Patrick Kane and Dustin Brown.

You can take it as a stark indication of just how far Kesler's reputation, and play, has slipped since.

Back in August, when Kesler wasn't thought of as a sure Olympian, he was coming off two injury-savaged seasons that became progressively disillusioning for two reasons.

One was the gnawing question of whether he could actually stay healthy enough to perform at a high level, playing six months of hockey leading up to the tournament.

And two was the question of how deeply the injuries and surgeries had eroded Kesler's game over time.

He's answered both questions positively in an oddly underrated first half of the season.

If Canucks fans aren't aware of how well Kesler has played and how important he is, especially to the penalty kill, then they haven't been watching the Canucks carefully.

Kesler is second in the NHL among forwards in minutes played, and sixth in shots on net. He's on pace for about 300 shots this year, which would obliterate his career high of 260.

Only 10 centres in the league have scored more than his 15 goals. He is fifth in the NHL with five game-winners, leads the Canucks' ineffective power play with five goals and is the best penalty killer on the league's best penalty kill unit.

Not bad. But, for some, not enough.

Sure, you wish he had more than 12 assists. But Kesler is not exactly sandwiched by snipers on a line with Chris Higgins and Mike Santorelli.

Sure, you wish he wouldn't have goal droughts like his current one, which has seen him go 10 games without one. But Jonathan Toews has scored in only two of his previous 17 games. Droughts happen. Sure, you wish the Canucks power play wasn't a disaster, but Kesler is only partially to blame for that, his wrist shot wasted for most of the season with him being planted in front of the net.

But if Kesler did everything that was expected of him - score at an elite level on and off the power play while shutting down the toughest competition on and off the penalty kill - he'd probably be worth around $8 million a year and there would never be any doubt about his place on Team USA.

For half a season anyway, Kesler has bounced back, but he understands he will be judged by what happens in the Olympics and then in the playoffs.

I asked Kesler to narrow it down and describe what he liked most about his game this season. His answer revealed an interesting transition he's undergone this year.

"(John Tortorella) says it a lot to me, to play underneath the hash marks," Kesler said. "I think I've been doing that a lot, and really added that to my game.

"Before, I scored a lot of goals off the rush and outside the 20-foot mark. Now, I'm getting goals beneath the 10-foot mark. I'm happy about that.

"Playoff time and late in the season, that's where you are going to have to score the goals. The goals scored then are the dirty ones."

Unlike some players, Kesler said the Olympics did not motivate him this season.

"It was all this team," Kesler said of the Canucks. "Obviously, (the Olympics) are in the back of your mind but it's in the back, back, back part of your mind.

"Even now, I'm excited but I'm just going to move on and play the next game."

Kesler said he knew his seat from the 2010 team wasn't just going to be gifted to him this season.

"But I knew I had a good shot if I had a good start to the season and got my game back," Kesler said. "I focused on that all summer, and I got my game back.

"I'm excited and honoured to be on (the team). It's going to be a special experience for me."

jbotchford@theprovince.com twitter.com/botchford

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Canucks centre Ryan Kesler, left, stickhandles around Tampa Bay Lightning's Martin St. Louis on Wednesday.
 

Canucks centre Ryan Kesler, left, stickhandles around Tampa Bay Lightning's Martin St. Louis on Wednesday.

Photograph by: The Canadian Press, The Province

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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