Kesler growing into an offensive force
Ryan Kesler knows he made it to the NHL based on his defensive prowess, but now he's developed into a top scorer on pace for nearly 50 goals.
Ryan Kesler is a portrait of a man with conflicting ideas and characteristics.
An American kid from Michigan playing his hockey for the Vancouver Canucks, Kesler spent the run-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver trash-talking Canada.
A two-time finalist for the Frank J. Selke Trophy who broke into the NHL because of his defensive prowess, he's not far off the pace for a 50-goal season.
On top of all that, Kesler said the Canucks were better off losing to the Chicago Blackhawks during the Western Conference Semifinals last season instead of vanquishing the eventual Stanley Cup champions.
The Canucks were up 1-0 in the series and in Game 2 held a one-goal lead entering the third period in Chicago. Just 20 minutes from a 2-0 series stranglehold, the Canucks came apart. The Blackhawks scored three times to take the game 4-2 and eventually won the series in six games.
Kesler said that loss is the reason why the Canucks entered Thursday's game at the New York Rangers sitting atop the NHL this season with a 28-8-6 record.
"Minutes away from going back to Vancouver 2-0," Kesler painfully recalled. "That was a heartbreaker. It's one of those things where you learn from your mistakes. I think you learn more from that series than if you squeaked by them in six or seven games. I really believe that you learn more from your defeats than you do your victories.
"That was a tough game and a tough series to lose, but I definitely think it made our core group of guys stronger and brought us together more, and really, we came in ready to play since the beginning of the season."
A NEW YEAR
Kesler never has scored more than 26 goals in a season, but he has 24 in 42 games this season. He's spent more time on the power play alongside Henrik and Daniel Sedin, something that will help bolster the goal totals of even the most accomplished scorer.
But the 26-year-old, who will make his first All-Star Game appearance this year said, "Good question," when asked where all the goals have come from. Kesler's best explanation? It's a result of some old-fashioned hard work during the offseason and in front of the net.
"I'm getting a couple more greasy ones," Kesler said. "I'm shooting a lot more. I think that's the biggest thing. I'm going to those dirty areas to score and getting the greasy ones and getting some deflections and also using my shot.
"I worked on my shot a lot in the offseason. The past two summers, I shot 100 pucks a day and really just played with my stick a little bit and tried different flexes and things like that. It's been a big reason for my shot."
Considering Kesler had made a name for himself as one of the game's top defensive forwards, a 45-goal or 50-goal season could ruin his reputation. The only Selke winner to score as many as 50 goals in a season was Sergei Fedorov for the Detroit Red Wings in 1993-94, when he notched 56.
Trying to figure out the game's best defensive forward is almost as hard as trying to figure out how Kesler is scoring all these goals. There are so many factors that go into the Selke -- takeaways, blocked shots, faceoffs, plus/minus, hits -- that not even Kesler knows how anyone can come to a decision on the award.
"The Selke's a weird trophy to win," Kesler said. "For me, it's not something that I'm going into the season saying, 'I want to win the Selke.' Really, for me, I take pride in my game and what got me into the League was the defensive part of my game. I'll never stop taking pride in that.
"It's something where I think it's a hard trophy to dish out because there's a lot of good defensive forwards in the League. Hopefully one day I can win it. I thought I had a pretty good chance last year and just came up short (to Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk). At the same time, I think I'm even better defensively this year."
One of the downfalls to the Canucks last season was their penalty-killing unit, which features Kesler heavily. During the regular season, it was a below-average 18th in the League at 81.6 percent. It completely crumbled in the playoffs, allowing the opposition to convert a jaw-dropping 31.5 percent of the time.
GM Mike Gillis made fixing that unit one of his first priorities this past summer. He signed Manny Malhotra -- one of the game's best checking centers, faceoff men and shorthanded specialists -- to a three-year contract on the first day of free agency. He also signed defenseman Dan Hamhuis to a six-year contract that same day.
Malhotra and Hamhuis are averaging more shorthanded ice time per game than anyone on the Canucks, who have risen to fifth in the League in penalty killing. The new blood added to a group that already had Kesler, combined with a new-found dedication toward man-down situations, is a big reason why the Canucks are ruling the League and in the midst of a 14-0-3 stretch.
"I think that definitely helps a bit," Kesler said of the additions of Malhotra and Hamhuis. "I think we just got more guys this year that are taking pride in it. When you have that, when you have a group of four playing together as a unit out there plus (goalies Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider), we have everybody working together and taking pride in it. It makes a big difference."
Having Malhotra to help shoulder the defensive load at center also has freed Kesler to develop his offensive game. Kesler still draws tough assignments, but it's been Malhotra taking the responsibility of containing the likes of Calgary's Jarome Iginla and San Jose's Joe Thornton more often.
In a recent game against the Red Wings, it was Malhotra seeing the ice more often against Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen. But late in the game, when the chips were down, coach Alain Vigneault had Kesler matched against the Red Wings' big guns.
"I don't know if the coaches have line matchups," Kesler said. "I know he likes to run the lines and get everybody into the game and let the other team worry about us. And really, it doesn't matter who I play against. I play them hard and I play them the same way if you're a top-line guy or a grinder."
New faces, new motivation and a new weapon in the defensive-minded Kesler's goal-scoring have the Canucks looking like a team that can do something special this season.
"I think we're a closer group this year," Kesler said. "I think we're a more mature group. We work and we hold each other accountable. We know what's at stake this year. We definitely want to go the distance."