The Next Step
Marc Andre Fleury, Eric Staal and Nathan Horton were the top three picks that year followed shortly thereafter by the likes of Thomas Vanek, Dion Phaneuf, Dustin Brown, Brent Seabrook, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Already that group has produced a Stanley Cup winner, a 100-point scorer, two All-Star game appearances and five guys who've suited up in the NHL Young Stars game.
With the 23rd pick in that 2003 draft, the Vancouver Canucks selected Ryan Kesler.
And the time has come for the slick-skating centre from Livonia, Michigan to prove to everyone why the Canucks selected him where they did and that his career will take off the way many of his peers already have. He's shown glimpses of it in his first three years in the NHL, but it's time for Kesler to take his game to the next level.
"I think I can be a top six forward and produce - I know I can produce - now I just have to go out and prove myself," Kesler said on a conference-call from his off-season home not far from Detroit.
He was hoping that was going to happen last season, but now he's just happy to have a tumultuous year behind him.
If not overwhelmed, then certainly affected by the attention and scrutiny that came along with the US $1.9 million offer sheet from the Philadelphia Flyers and subsequently matched by the Canucks last September, Kesler didn't exactly come flying out of the gates. He needed 13 games to score his first goal of the season and had just two in his first 20. And when the Canucks reached the All-Star break in January, Kesler's break lasted considerably longer. It was decided at that point that he required surgery to fix a nagging hip injury - a procedure thought by most to be season-ending.
Full-credit to him, however, for the weeks and weeks spent in the gym rehabbing the injury. Where many players would have shut things down and started thinking about the next season, Kesler's dedication and determination allowed him to make a surprising return to the line-up for the team's playoff opener against Dallas.
If you need proof that life isn't fair, just ask Kesler who suffered a broken finger in overtime of that first game back in the line-up and was back on the shelf for the rest of the playoffs. And there's no question the Canucks could have used all the things Kesler brings to the rink in the rest of the series against the Stars and then in the second round against Anaheim.
While his taste of NHL playoff action was limited to part of one game, Kesler's choosing to look at it as a positive experience rather than dwelling on what might have been.
"That game was a huge confidence builder. I really didn't know what to expect, I played 30 minutes and the next day I wasn't even sore," he said. "I wanted to prove to everybody that I still had my speed."
By signing his new three-year deal on Thursday, Kesler can now remove any and all of the distractions that hovered over him last off-season. Now he's free to focus all of his attention on becoming the type of player the Canucks are counting on him to be - a hard-nosed, hard-to-play against big body that's responsible in his own zone and can win you some key face-offs. But after three years in the league and with more than 150 games under his belt, Kesler now has to show he's capable of scoring more than the six goals a season he's averaged in his first three years on the job.
Drafted as a centre out of Ohio State, Kesler may be better suited to the wing in the new NHL where his speed gives him the ability to beat defencemen to pucks on the forecheck and his size allows him to win battles along the boards.
If the reported numbers are to be believed, Kesler's new contract means he'll take a slight pay cut from what he earned last year. If he continues to develop the way he and the hockey club both hope, then he may prove to be a bargain by the time the deal expires in the summer of 2010.
And if all goes according to plan, Ryan Kesler's performance in a Canucks uniform will have him mentioned along with those other names in that group of emerging stars that made up the class of 2003.
Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org