Raising the bar

Once a grinder, now a sniper, Ryan Kesler had a career year and is focused on an incredible encore

Friday, 22.05.2009 / 12:00 PM / Features
By Derek Jory
With the NHL playoffs still underway and the Vancouver Canucks not taking part, it remains hard to see the forest through the trees.

Until a Stanley Cup champion is crowned and the optimism of a new season is born, focusing on Vancouver’s failures this year is much easier than looking at their accomplishments.

When the tides turn and the big picture of how the Canucks grew during the 2008-09 season comes into focus, Ryan Kesler will emerge as one of the best snapshots.

Shake it like a Polaroid picture and Kesler’s fourth season in Vancouver, a career year on almost every front, was truly something to admire.

The stats alone are impressive.

Kesler went above and beyond his usual output in goals (25), power play goals (10), assists (33) and points (59), was a plus-8 with a pair of game-winners.

His 59 points - 22 higher than his previous career mark - ranked third on the Canucks behind Daniel and Henrik Sedin.

“It feels good to finally get that chance,” said Kesler of becoming a bigger part of Vancouver’s offence.

“It was one of my goals at the beginning of the season to step into the top six and I thought I accomplished that and it’s something I can build off of and come into camp with that confidence.”

As a finalist for the Frank Selke Trophy, awarded to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of the game, Kesler clearly didn’t forsake his defensive duties in lieu of offensive glory.

He led the forwards in shorthanded ice time (3:19), the Canucks in takeaways (74) and was second on the team in overall ice time (19:27), while potting two shorthanded goals and winning a career and team-high 54% of his face-offs.

Offensive and defensive growth was expected from Kesler this season, the real surprise came in how he handled receiving the same letter that helped him ace his way through a year at Ohio State University before being drafted by the Canucks.

The A on his sweater stood out like a mustard stain at the beginning of the season, yet the 24-year-old made it work. Slowly but surely he developed into a leader in the locker room and by year’s end he was a go-to guy on the ice, and a no BS voice of reason off of it.

The question now for Kesler is what does he do for an encore?

Success and pressure go hand-in-hand like Mac and cheese, luckily Kesler is hungry to set the bar even higher next season.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself to perform and each year you want to get better, you want to produce more, you want to help the team win,” said Kesler. “Especially in the off-season it’s going to push me even more to get better and come in faster and stronger.”

That’s music to the ears of Canucks management and fans alike as they're equally as smitten with the steadfast forward.

“Ryan, in my mind, is not only a good player at both ends of the rink for our team, but he’s also one of our leaders,” said coach Alain Vigneault.

“He’s also one of our character guys that I think is going to learn from what happened this year, throughout the whole year, but in the Chicago series also. Obviously he’s one of the key components to our team, we know that, he knows that, and we expect him to get better.”

Kesler will be heading into the final year of his contract next season and GM Mike Gillis has already made it lucid that re-signing the Michigan product is on his to-do list starting July 1.

“Ryan struck me as being very happy here in Vancouver, very happy with his development,” said Gillis. “I feel pretty confident that we’re a good place for him and he’s a good player for us and that we can get something done.”

Although Gillis was already sold on Kesler’s abilities following another stellar campaign, the forwards’ importance to the Canucks was bricked into place when Gillis had hisyear end meetings with the players. Many of them, including veteran Mats Sundin, spoke of all things Kesler.

“Mats referenced Ryan four or five times as a guy that he really didn’t know is as good as he is.”

Like Sundin, the rest of the NHL is now fully aware of Kesler’s abilities, not that that means much. Like the Canucks, Kesler has his game headed in the right direction and if he or the team hits warp speed, good luck slowing them down.

“Everybody was down on us at the beginning of the season, thought we weren’t even going to make the playoffs, we stuck together and we dealt with some adversity this year and we just fell short this year and it’s very disappointing.”

Kesler's maturity is evident by re-reading the above quote and many like them, keeping in mind that he was asked about his personal success this season, which included a Cyclone Taylor Award as the Canucks MVP, and not the team.

Like a true leader, he always deflects the attention back to the team.

It’s hard to see the forest through the trees and it’s hard to think of Kesler of anything but a franchise player in the making.