Good players find a way to improve even when it may seem like they’re at their peak. After a breakout season last season, Ryan Kesler left many were wondering just how he could improve his game this year. Kesler’s growth as a player has been something we’ve been fortunate enough to watch. We were fortunate that Philadelphia never stole him away with an offer sheet and we’re even more fortunate that we’re going to have a player who in a few years could arguably be the best active American player in the NHL.
After an off season of ego boosting through being the poster boy for NHL 2K11 and the face of a new clothing line to put himself amongst the NHL fashion ranks with Ovechkin and Crosby, Kesler has returned to the lineup with something to prove. After two excruciating series losses to the Blackhawks, he knows as much as any other player how much this city and team want to win the cup. It shows in his play.
It became clear last season that Kesler is the catalyst for the Canucks second line. He sparked a career year for Mason Raymond, and we’re seeing the same thing happen again with Jeff Tambellini. Tambellini who had all the chances to establish himself in the NHL has finally found his spot alongside Kesler on the second line on a line that has a constant need for speed.
With a new air of maturity to start his season, Kesler stepped onto the ice this season, and as an encore, has quickly become one of the NHL’s elite centers. The maturity he’s developed has reached different facets of his game. Kesler’s not getting riled up by the other team’s agitators the way he did before, and he’s taken a step towards being a leader through his play. He sits second in team scoring right now behind Daniel Sedin. He wears an ‘A’ this season and is living up to his offensive, defensive, and team responsibilities. His play on the penalty kill has been stronger than ever and he’s on pace for career numbers for the second consecutive season and he has an obvious impact to the players who surround him.
The mark of Kesler’s maturity has really been seen in how he’s embraced a shift in his role. The Canucks have long lusted for another young Todd Bertuzzi-esque forward. This season, we’ve seen him thrust into that position at the front of the net. The Livonia, Michigan native has taken that responsibility and has excelled at it. We’re seeing Kesler make power forward moves to the net that the Canucks only used to see when David Backes was in town. We’re seeing him go to the front of the net and get rewarded. Consequently, his play has been the reason the Canucks special teams play has been tops in the league at both ends of the man advantage.
As we reach the halfway mark of the season, Kesler’s play has been exceptional in any of the roles he’s been called upon to play. His on-ice vision, improved skill and speed has sparked his linemates from Jannik Hansen to Mikael Samuelsson, and importantly, he’s become the net presence the Canucks have desperately needed. He’s better than Dustin Byfuglien ever could be. The Canucks have long needed a net presence, and Kesler’s stepped up to be that presence.
At only 26, Kesler has already done so much for this Canucks squad. Now we need him to do the one thing this franchise hasn’t done in the last 40 years.