Key Canuck Kesler’s play will be pivotal
Forward aims to become team’s difference-maker, again
VANCOUVER — A lot can happen in two years and in Ryan Kesler’s case, it hasn’t all been good.
There was the hip surgery in the summer of 2011 and then early last summer he went under the knife to repair shoulder and wrist problems. He finally returned in mid-February following a lengthy rehab only to break his foot while blocking a shot in his first game back.
But he’s healthy again — knock on an old Sher-Wood — and that gives the Vancouver Canucks hope as they enter the playoffs.
A healthy Kesler can be a difference-maker as the Nashville Predators discovered two years ago. It was during that second-round playoff series in 2011 that Kesler delivered a virtuoso performance. In what was a six-game series, Kesler had five goals — two of them game-winners — and six assists. All Nashville coach Barry Trotz could do was shake his head.
“He was a force the whole series,” Trotz said. “We used multiple people against him. He had one of those series that is absolutely remarkable for one player.”
It was vintage Kesler, but the trouble is hockey players don’t always get better with age and Kesler’s health battles have left him with a 28-year-old body that has lots of miles on the odometer.
The Canucks have their fingers crossed that Kesler can remain healthy and return to the kind of form he displayed back in 2010-11 when he scored 41 goals and won the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the NHL’s top defensive forward.
This season, they won their fifth consecutive Northwest Division title largely without him — Kesler played only 17 games this season — but the Canucks know they need a significant contribution from Kesler if they are to make serious noise in the Stanley Cup tournament.
It is not a stretch to suggest that Kesler is one of the biggest keys to playoff success for Vancouver.
“I don’t see it as pressure, I see it as opportunity,” Kesler says of those lofty expectations. “I think some people don’t understand it’s a team game and I am a piece to the puzzle. We need 20 guys playing their best. Any given night, any given series, there (are) going to be guys that play up and above and I definitely want to be one of those guys.”
Kesler thinks he still can raise his game to the kind of level we saw in that Nashville series two years ago.
“Yeah, I was feeling it for sure,” says Kesler, allowing himself to reminisce for a moment. “It felt like anything I shot, anything I did, I seemed to contribute offensively.
“In the playoffs it really doesn’t matter who scores or who plays well, just as long as you get the win. Ask anybody in here. If Hank and Danny don’t score a goal in the playoffs or I don’t score a goal and we win the Cup, I’ll be fine with that.”
Ask anyone in the Canuck dressing room how important Kesler is to the team and they’ll tell you.
Kesler is a big part of everything they do. He is an integral part of both the power play and penalty-kill and it’s probably not a coincidence that both have been better since he returned from his foot injury.
Kesler also takes some pressure off the top line of Henrik and Daniel Sedin and Alex Burrows. With a dangerous second line, opposing teams can’t just focus on stopping the Sedins. Kesler also excels in the faceoff circle.
Daniel Sedin certainly hasn’t forgotten that Nashville series.
“He took over that series,” Daniel said.
“In every situation, power play, five-on-five, PK. That is what he brings to our team. He is strong in every part of the game. ... That is the one thing you can say about him, he brings a lot of things to the table.”
Kesler still doesn’t know exactly how coach Alain Vigneault will use him in the playoffs. Vigneault has been experimenting with Kesler on the wing with Derek Roy and Chris Higgins as he attempts to load up a second line.
Kesler is more comfortable in the middle, but understands the reasoning behind the switch and how it should benefit the Sedins.
“They (the Sedins) are pretty good at handling the pressure but teams can’t focus just on them, especially with Derek and Chris and the way we are playing, it’s going to be really tough for teams to have two lines going at them.
“I think it gives us different looks. Whatever (Vigneault) decides ... We can go with three lines (with Kesler and Roy both at centre) or we can have two stacked lines. It’s really up to him.”
Kesler acknowledges he is going through a bit of a learning curve playing on the wing. He likes to carry the puck and doesn’t see nearly as much of it on the wing.
“Derek’s pretty crafty with the puck, he’s a guy who is always looking to pass,” Kesler says. “My job is to get open for him and use my shot.”
Defensively, Kesler says not much changes with him on the wing.
“I take most of the draws still and if I am the first guy back I am going low, so it really doesn’t change too much,” he says. “It’s still hockey out there and it’s still the National Hockey League. I’m just having fun doing it.
“Obviously, going into the playoffs healthy it feels good. It feels good to be able to focus on playing the game and focus on helping the team win.”
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‘(Ryan Kesler) is strong in every part of the game. ... That is the one thing you can say about him, he brings a lot of things to the table,’ says Daniel Sedin of his Canucks teammate, shown making life difficult for Chicago Blackhawk Brandon Saad.
Photograph by: JONATHAN HAYWARD, THE CANADIAN PRESS